Fans attending Tampa Bay's final 2023 homestand starting Tuesday night against the Los Angeles Angels in St. Petersburg, Fla., should not be surprised if the matchup resembles a playoff game.
Over the weekend, the Rays (92-59) set themselves up splendidly to leave Maryland possibly tied with the American League East-leading Baltimore Orioles atop baseball's most competitive division.
After winning two of the first three games in the four-game series, manager Kevin Cash pulled out all the stops to win Sunday's finale, which would have lifted his club into a tie after winning the first two contests.
The Orioles (93-56), however, rallied late, tying the Rays in the ninth and winning in 11 innings.
It was an efficient start Sunday by Zack Littell, who had made just 55 pitches and yielded one run in 4 2/3 innings before Cash pulled him as he approached the third time through Baltimore's lineup.
He also brought in closer Pete Fairbanks for a two-inning stint instead of the ninth frame the fireballer usually hurls, but Fairbanks allowed single runs in the eighth and ninth innings to send the game into extra innings.
On Sunday, Cash underscored the importance of each game.
"We've looked at this (Sunday's game) as close to a postseason game, (but) it's not a postseason game," said the manager, whose team clinched its fifth straight playoff berth with Cleveland's 9-2 win over Texas. "It's as close as you're going to get in the regular season at this point."
Baltimore also won the season series 8-5 over the Rays, giving the O's the tiebreaker if the clubs are deadlocked after 162 games.
To open Tampa Bay's six-game homestand, rookie Taj Bradley (5-7, 5.56) will make his 20th start.
Winless in his past nine outings (0-4), the right-hander has not won since beating the Orioles 7-2 on June 21 and will make his first career appearance against the Angels.
Over three September starts, the 22-year-old Los Angeles native holds no decisions and a 5.06 ERA in 16 innings — surrendering only 13 hits but five homers.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles (68-82) is getting adjusted to life without Shohei Ohtani.
After missing 11 games with oblique irritation, the dynamic pitcher and slugger had his 2023 season end over the weekend as he was placed on the injured list.
The Japanese superstar will likely have some type of elbow work done this week for his torn ulnar collateral ligament but remain with the club.
"I don't have details on the procedure," Angels general manager Perry Minasian said, "but obviously he wants to get that as quick as he can and start getting ready for '24."
Ohtani will be a free agent at season's end, but his agent at CAA, Nez Balelo, said his client would be able to at least hit when 2024 opens.
More ailments have hampered the Angels as they come to Florida saddled with a five-game losing streak and hurtling toward a franchise-record eighth straight losing campaign.
Second baseman Kyren Paris (thumb soreness) missed Sunday's game against the Detroit Tigers.
Lefty Reid Detmers (illness) was scheduled to start the game but was scratched, leaving him a possibility to pitch over the next three days.
Left-hander Patrick Sandoval (7-13, 4.48) will make his sixth career appearance (fifth start) against the Rays, having posted an 0-2 mark with a 2.91 ERA and an opponents' batting average of .224.
—Field Level Media