December 5, 2022

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Bruján clutch as Rays cap road trip on high note

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ANAHEIM — The Rays’ series finale against the Halos progressed in much the same way as their 10-game West Coast trip that concluded Wednesday evening at Angel Stadium.

They couldn’t have started off much better. They ran into some trouble late. And the struggles they briefly experienced were totally redeemed by the way it ended.

For 7 1/2 innings, everything had gone the Rays’ way. Kevin Kiermaier homered off two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani to give Tampa Bay an early lead. Shane McClanahan dominated the Majors’ highest-scoring lineup with 11 strikeouts over seven innings in the best start of his young career. But then typically reliable reliever Andrew Kittredge gave up a pinch-hit, game-tying homer to Taylor Ward, putting the Angels one swing away from a three-game sweep that would have changed the narrative of a trip that began with six consecutive victories.

In the end, the Rays finished the day — and the long trip — on a high note. Versatile prospect Vidal Bruján smacked Angels left-hander Aaron Loup’s first pitch of the 10th inning down the left-field line for an RBI double, stole third base and scored on a single by pinch-hitter Harold Ramírez. The 24-year-old picked an ideal spot for his first big moment in the Majors, pushing the Rays to a 4-2 win over the Angels.

“You learn a lot about your team coming to the park on days like today. What are we about?” Kiermaier said. “Whatever we have to do to find a way to win, that’s what it’s all about — and today, we found a way. Great road trip. Head back home with our heads held high.”

The previous three days had been unkind to the Rays. Their six-game winning streak ended with a walk-off defeat Sunday in Seattle. They lost by eight runs in Monday’s series opener, then the Angels piled on with an even more lopsided victory and a no-hitter by Reid Detmers on Tuesday night. Letting another game slip away in the late innings, especially after handing a two-run lead to their most trusted reliever, would have been a gut punch.

But rather than carrying a four-game losing streak on board their cross-country, red-eye flight Wednesday night, the Rays flew home reflecting on a 7-3 swing through Oakland, Seattle and Anaheim that improved their record to 19-13.

“Seven and three is a lot better than 6-4, no doubt, and avoiding four consecutive losses helps a lot,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Really impressed with the guys, the way they played throughout this entire trip. We lost one tight ballgame in Seattle, won a tight ballgame here and then had two separated — but got to be happy [with] 7-3.”

All’s well that ends well, right? That time-honored cliché could apply to the trip as a whole or just Wednesday’s game, especially the way Bruján came through in the clutch with his first Major League extra-base hit and only his third RBI at this level.

“I feel really good,” said Bruján, MLB Pipeline’s No. 75 overall prospect, through interpreter Manny Navarro. “Thank God. He was giving me an opportunity to be in that position, and I’m glad that I was able to take advantage of it.”

The Rays’ No. 4 prospect struggled in his debut last July, going just 2-for-26 in 10 games, and he only played one game on April 24 in his first big league stint this season. He’s been blocked by a deep and talented group of position players already on the roster, leaving little room for even a switch-hitting speedster capable of playing six different positions.

“I’ve seen Bru do some pretty special things, and so has everybody here. The guy’s a speed demon, he’s a plus-plus defender, and he can hit with the best of them,” McClanahan added. “I think tonight was just a scratch of the surface of Bruján’s potential. We’re really excited to have him here.”

Bruján’s chance came Tuesday, when he was recalled from Triple-A Durham … only to arrive the day Tampa Bay was no-hit. But Wednesday was a new day for the Rays and Bruján. He can’t control whether he’s sent back to Durham, but he can try to show he deserves to stay. He showed off his dynamic talent in one quick, confidence-boosting sequence.

“You can definitely tell he’s waiting for an opportunity and trying to make a name for himself and get more opportunity up here, and hits like that will do it,” Kiermaier said of Bruján. “He’s a great player, and we love to see how young guys — rookies like that — respond in big moments when we need them most, and he was a huge part of our win today.”

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