The AL East is up for grabs.
The Tampa Bay Rays rode hot bats and a one-hit effort from starter Zach Eflin to beat the Baltimore Orioles 7-1 on Friday. The two teams are now tied atop the AL East with two-plus weeks left in the regular season. The Rays, who started the season with the best record in baseball, are in first place for the first time since they lost the division lead on July 20.
The division winner will earn a significant edge in the postseason. The Rays and Orioles have the two best records in the AL, and the division winner projects as the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, a position that comes with a first-round playoff bye and home-field advantage until the World Series. The loser will be relegated to the No. 4 seed and have to win a wild-card series to advance to the divisional round.
The Rays finished the game Friday at 92-57, with 13 games left on their schedule. The Orioles have 15 games remaining and sit at 91-56.
Friday’s game remained scoreless through three innings, as Eflin and Orioles starter Jack Flaherty both started strong. But the Rays scored three runs off of Flaherty in the fourth and fifth innings, prompting Orioles manager Brandon Hyde to go to his bullpen. The move didn’t pay off, as pinch hitter Harold Ramírez sent a Bryan Baker fastball over the left-field wall for a three-run home run on Baker’s first pitch of the game.
The blast blew the game open at 7-0.
Eflin, meanwhile, remained hot for Tampa Bay and took a perfect game into the sixth inning. Then Orioles outfielder Heston Kjerstad put it to an emphatic end. The rookie launched an 89 mph cutter into the right-center-field bleachers for his first MLB home run. It was his first MLB hit one day after the Orioles called him up from Triple-A Norfolk.
MLB’s 24th-ranked prospect, Kjerstad delivered early on his promise Friday. But his home run amounted to a silver lining for the Orioles, who didn’t muster anything else against the Eflin, who left the seventh inning having allowed the single hit. He finished the game with eight strikeouts, no walks and the win. The Tampa Bay bullpen held Baltimore to two scoreless innings to end the game.
The Rays have now won seven of eight games and 10 of their past 12. The Orioles, meanwhile, have lost five of six, including a Thursday defeat to the Rays in the first game of the series. The Rays and Orioles play twice more in the four-game series, with the AL East lead at stake. Sunday will be the last time they play in the regular season.