TORONTO -- The Blue Jays turned to an unlikely hero on Monday night in their pursuit of a spot in the postseason: Ezequiel Carrera.
Carrera hit a surprise pinch-hit homer in the bottom of the eighth inning to lead the Blue Jays to a 3-2 victory over the Rays on Monday night at Rogers Centre. The seldom-used outfielder had just nine home runs during his six-year career prior to the series opener vs. Tampa Bay, but the one that sent him into double digits might have been his biggest yet.
Toronto and Tampa Bay were locked into a 2-2 tie when Carrera led off the eighth with an opposite-field shot over the wall in left field. The home run, combined with a two-run shot by Jose Bautista earlier in the game and 6 1/3 strong innings from lefty Francisco Liriano were enough for the Blue Jays to keep pace in the division.
"Zeke hadn't been playing a whole heck of a lot and he went through some struggles for a short while, too," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "But you look back to when Bautista went down, for a while he became our sparkplug. So I thought let's give him a shot and maybe he'll spark us, get on base or something, and then we have the top of the lineup coming up, and he did it in a big way … So yeah, great job Zeke."
Steven Souza Jr. made the final out of the game when he drove a ball to deep center field that Kevin Pillar ran down. Moments after the out was recorded, Souza and Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin began to jaw with one another before Troy Tulowitzki ran across the field to add his two cents. Souza and Martin both attributed the moment to a miscommunication and the heat of the pennant race.
"We're fine," Souza said. "I love watching Russ play. I love watching Tulo play. Love competing against these guys. Hopefully we squash it and go forward."
With the victory, the Blue Jays took a one-game lead over Baltimore, which lost to Boston, for the American League's first Wild Card. Toronto also remained two games behind Boston for first place in the AL East.
Tampa Bay received a pair of home runs by Evan Longoria and Brad Miller in the seventh, but it was an otherwise quiet night on offense. The loss went to reliever Brad Boxberger while Jake Odorizzi took the no-decision despite limiting Toronto's offense to a pair of runs over seven quality innings.
"What a ballgame," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "That's about as well-pitched as you're going to see on both sides. Liriano was very good, very efficient. Odo matched him right there all the way to the end. Not a ton of hitting, but the hits that came were big ones. Very impressive that we came back with the back-to-back homers from Longo and Miller."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Getting Zeke-y with it: Carrera's second career pinch-hit home run could have not come at a better time for the Blue Jays. The backup outfielder has primarily been used as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement in the second half of the season, but his first home run since July 5 was the difference. According to Statcast™, Carrera's career-high fifth home run of the season traveled 340 feet and left the bat at 97 mph. It was Toronto's first pinch-hit homer since Carrera had one on July 25, 2015, against the Mariners.
"I was going in there aggressive," said Carrera, who picked up his first hit since Aug. 24. "I know the pitchers, when they have a pinch-hitter coming, they're aggressive, they want to attack the hitter. So from my side, I just tried to be aggressive and look for a good pitch to hit."
Crash Souza: Souza Jr., who is prone to running into walls, did it again in the fourth when Tulowitzki hit a drive deep to right field. Souza sprinted toward the wall, made the grab, ran into the wall, then crumpled to the field before limping to the dugout.
Bautista Bomb: Bautista entered play without an extra-base hit in September, but there were finally some signs of power in the sixth. Toronto's veteran slugger lifted a first-pitch cutter from Odorizzi and sent it over the wall in left field for a two-run shot. According to Statcast™, Bautista's 18th of the year was projected to travel 343 feet and left his bat at 93 mph. It was his first home run since Aug. 31 and his third since returning from the disabled list on Aug. 25.
"Obviously we wanted to get on the board, it was a little later than we had hoped but anytime you do something positive for the team you feel good and just I try to contribute every day out there," Bautista said. "It's always gratifying to be able to put some runs on the board." More >
Back-to-back: Bautista got the Blue Jays on the scoreboard with his sixth-inning homer with a man aboard. Longoria then led off the seventh for the Rays with his 32nd home run of the season on the first pitch he saw from Liriano. Miller then looked at a pitch before driving his 28th home run of the season over the center-field wall to tie the game at 2. The Rays have hit back-to-back home runs three times this season.
"I think regardless of our spot in the standings, obviously we're in last place, we're all fighting for something," Miller said. "A lot of pride, a lot of people work very hard at this and want to go out there and show it."
"I raised my hands. I thought it was a homer. So if the camera caught me, I probably looked like a moron. That's OK, I'm good at doing that." -- Cash, on Souza's blast that was caught for the final out of the game
"There's no story. I told [Souza] he crushed the ball and he didn't understand what I said and he had that look like, 'I don't know what he said. Is he mad at me? What's this guy telling me?' Before I could explain both teams got into that melee but I got to talk to him at the end and we're fine. There's no bad blood or anything." -- Martin, on the incident at the end of the game
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Bautista might not have been hitting for a lot of power, but he has still been reaching base on a consistent basis. The 35-year-old has reached base safely in 20 consecutive games, which is his longest streak of the season.
Odorizzi notched another quality start, allowing two runs in seven innings, but came away with another no-decision -- his 15th of the season, setting a club record.
The Rays challenged the safe call at second when Devon Travis doubled to lead off the bottom of the sixth. After a delay of 42 seconds, the call on the field was upheld and Travis later scored on the two-run homer by Bautista.
WHAT'S NEXT Rays:Drew Smyly (6-11, 5.05 ERA) makes his 28th start hoping to rein in the long ball against the powerful Blue Jays on Tuesday at 7:07 p.m. ET at Rogers Centre. The left-hander has allowed a career-high 30 home runs this season. Though home runs are up throughout baseball, Smyly allowed that was no excuse and that he just needs to find a better way to keep the ball in the park.
Blue Jays: Right-hander Marcus Stroman (9-7, 4.55 ERA) will take the mound against the Rays on Tuesday. Stroman most recently faced Tampa Bay on Sept. 2 and allowed four runs -- three earned -- on five hits over six innings in a loss.