By Jenifer Langosch and Alaina Getzenberg
ST. LOUIS -- Buoyed by a four-run third and stingy relief work, the Rays opened their three-game series against the Cardinals with a 7-3 victory at Busch Stadium on Friday night. The Rays' fourth win in five games helped them keep pace in a crowded American League Wild Card race, where they sit sandwiched among seven teams within three games of the second Wild Card spot.
The Cardinals, who are also chasing a playoff berth, continue to slide in the opposite direction. With their eighth loss in 11 games, they remained 4 1/2 games behind the Cubs in the National League Central and five back of the Rockies for the NL's second Wild Card spot.
"Good win. Nice to start the series always [with] a win," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "Getting on this road, it's a long trip and guys played well. We got some big hits, some timely hits, which was nice, and our bullpen came in, and [it] was just outstanding the way we kind of navigated through."
Neither Jake Odorizzi, nor Michael Wacha, were able to complete four innings, but the Rays made more of their opportunities. They batted around against "Wach" while scoring four times in the third. Steven Souza Jr., sporting the nickname "Souzbot" for Players Weekend, opened the inning with a solo homer, and Adeiny Hechavarria gave Tampa Bay its first lead with a two-run double.
"My stuff felt really good," Wacha said. "Give credit to them, they were putting up some great battles, laying off some tough pitches or just getting a piece of it. They found holes later on in at-bats. It was a struggle."
Wacha, who was pulled after throwing 94 pitches in 3 1/3 innings, has not pitched into the fifth in three of his five August starts. He has a 7.25 ERA this month.
"I think if we saw a lack of velocity or a drop, that would be an indicator of strength [concerns]," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "But it looks good. There are some at-bats where it looks like what we've seen most of the season. It's just the consistency of those, which sometimes you just go through those little ruts. It just happens to be right now."
Odorizzi, who is going by "Odo" this weekend, walked four and scattered three hits while allowing three runs in his start. Five Rays relievers followed with 5 1/3 scoreless innings in which they allowed a combined two hits.
"We got a lot of confidence [in the bullpen], because we keep going to them," Cash said. "Saying that we need a couple big starts now ... to give us some length. because we got some guys that will come in being a little bit gassed at the end of the day, [but] we'll take that because they help us get a win."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Striking early: Wacha needed 35 pitches to navigate the third inning and would certainly like to have back the first-pitch changeup that Hechavarria, wearing the nickname "La Pantera," laced into the left-field corner. Hechavarria's bases-loaded double scored two and pushed the Rays ahead, 3-1. In his last eight games, Hechavarria has tallied four extra-base hits and four multi-hit games. He logged three hits in a game for the first time since June 30. More >.
"When we were going at the beginning of the second half, and just before when we got [to Hechavarria], he was hot, and at the bottom of the order, he was putting some solid production in," Souza said. "He changes the game defensively. Everybody knows that. We all know that. So anything he adds offensively is just a bonus. The big hits that he got today were just icing on the cake."
Rally squelched: The Cardinals tried to answer the Rays' four-run third with a rally of their own in the bottom half of the inning, but ran themselves out of the chance for a bigger inning. As Matt Carpenter scored on Yadier Molina's sacrifice fly to center, Stephen Piscotty attempted to advance a base from second. But first baseman Logan Morrison alertly cut the throw from center fielder Kevin Kiermaier and fired to third, where Evan Longoria tagged Piscotty out to end the inning. It was the 11th time this season that Piscotty, who wore the nickname "MoMo" on Friday, has been thrown out on the bases.
Lefty Ryan Sherriff threw three scoreless innings in his Major League debut and provided a critical pick-me-up for a Cardinals bullpen that had to shoulder another heavy load after Wacha's abbreviated start. Sherriff, who was summoned from Triple-A on Wednesday, scattered two hits and struck out four.
"What a debut," Matheny said. "We needed him to go a little longer today, maybe longer than what we had hoped. But he kept answering. I thought he did as good a job as anybody could possibly do."
Sherriff was also a part of a fun Players Weekend matchup against Kiermaier, nicknamed "Outlaw." With two on and two out in the seventh, Sherriff retired Outlaw to complete his outing and become the first Cardinals reliever to cover three-plus scoreless innings in his MLB debut since Jose Jimenez in 1998.
"It was just a great experience," Sherriff said. "I was numb through the whole thing. It was just awesome having the best catcher in baseball calling the game for me."
UPON FURTHER REVIEW
The Cardinals used their challenge unsuccessfully while trying to extend the third inning. They requested a second look at a close play at third base where Piscotty had been called out trying to advance. After a review, the call was ruled to stand as it was determined that there was not enough evidence to overturn the on-field call.
WHAT'S NEXT Rays:Blake Snell (2-6, 4.42 ERA) will make his first appearance against the Cardinals when he takes the mound on Saturday at 7:15 p.m. ET. "Zilla" is coming off one of his best starts of the year -- holding the Mariners scoreless through seven innings and allowing a season-low two hits.
Cardinals: Wearing the nickname "Sparky" on his jersey, Mike Leake will take the mound at 6:15 p.m. CT on Saturday against the Rays looking to correct a recent downturn in performance. Despite Leake's 7.24 ERA since the start of July, the Cardinals opted not to replace him in the rotation.