OAKLAND, Calif. — Tampa Bay Rays first baseman Yandy Diaz is known for two things: his outsize muscles and exceptional ability to hit. His combination of both in the American League wild-card game helped propel the Rays into the division series.
Playing in only his second game since July, Diaz led off the game with a home run and followed with another two innings later, pacing the Rays’ homer-happy attack in a 5-1 victory over the Oakland Athletics on Wednesday. Tampa Bay will face the Houston Astros, the best team in baseball this season, starting Friday in the best-of-five division series.
In front of a wild-card record crowd of 54,005 at Oakland Coliseum, Diaz muted the cheers by hammering a fastball from starter Sean Manaea out to right-center field. Outfielder Avisail Garcia followed with a two-run home run in the second inning, and Diaz took Manaea out to right-center again in the third to stake the Rays a 4-0 lead.
“Yandy is just one of those guys — he just wakes up out of bed and rakes,” Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “Everyone knows him for his muscles and what he can do in the weight room and stuff like that, but the guy finds the barrel so much throughout this whole season, and anytime we’re able to have him available, we’re happy.”
Diaz’s availability was uncertain until the past week. On July 22, Diaz fouled a pitch off his left foot with two outs and two strikes in the ninth inning of a blowout loss for the Rays. A hairline fracture kept him out until Sept. 29, when he returned and went hitless.
“We’re excited to have him back,” Rays outfielder Austin Meadows said. “He’s been a force for us, especially early on in the season.”
Diaz was a surprise starter for Tampa Bay, though the Rays have surprised all year on their way to a 96-66 record and their first postseason appearance since 2013. The last time they played in October, Joe Maddon was their manager, Evan Longoria their third baseman and David Price their ace. This is an entirely new team, though the principles that have buoyed the Rays — seeking value and building from within — have not changed.
Their one significant offseason expenditure paid dividends Wednesday, too. Starter Charlie Morton, whom they signed to a two-year, $ 30 million deal, worked out of early jams to hold the A’s to one run through five innings — an unearned run that scored due to a throwing error kicking around the large foul territory in Oakland.
The A’s, winners of 97 games, couldn’t muster any offense beyond that. Reliever Diego Castillo shut them down over two scoreless innings. Nick Anderson, a midseason pickup from Miami, gave up a first-batter single and struck out the next four hitters he faced. And Emilio Pagan, a former Oakland reliever and the Rays’ unlikely closer, got the last two outs and sent the A’s to their third wild-card loss in six years, following a brutal 9-8 extra-innings loss in Kansas City in 2014 and last year’s 7-2 blowout defeat in New York.
Tampa Bay moves on to face an Astros buzzsaw that won 107 games and will start Cy Young co-favorites Justin Verlander in Game 1 and Gerrit Cole in Game 2. The Astros’ offense outscored the Rays’ by more than 150 runs — and their pitching and defense allowed the fewest in the AL.
Still, the Rays, unlike the Washington Nationals in the National League wild-card game on Tuesday, did not need to burn their second starter. Reigning AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell and breakout right-hander Tyler Glasnow will be available to start Games 1 and 2, with Morton back for Game 3 on full rest.