Having arrived in Toronto on Friday needing only a single win combined with a Texas loss to make the playoffs, Tampa Bay now faces a de-facto elimination game on the final day of the regular season, with boyhood Rays fan Todd Redmond scheduled to pitch for the Blue Jays.
The Rays had a two-game lead on Texas and a one-game lead on Cleveland in the American League wild-card, entering the final weekend series. But they've lost the first two games to the Blue Jays while the Rangers and Indians have won both of theirs, against the Angels and Twins respectively.
By consequence, Cleveland now holds a one-game lead over Tampa Bay and Texas, with two wild-card berths at stake.
Sunday's schedule presents a range of scenarios, from all three teams being tied for the wild-card spots to one team being eliminated on the final day of the season.
At Rogers Centre on Saturday afternoon, Rays reliever Jamey Wright, seeking his first career postseason berth at the age of 38, gave up a tie-breaking two-run single to Adam Lind in the fourth inning and a two-run homer to Ryan Goins in the fifth inning, as the Blue Jays won 7-2. J.A. Happ, struck in the head by a line drive while pitching against the Rays on May 7, allowed five hits and a run in a season-high 7-1/3 innings to finish a rough season positively.
Redmond grew up in St. Petersburg where the Rays stadium, Tropicana Field, is located. His family had season tickets and he used to "hang out, get autographs," before turning pro in 2005, out of St. Petersburg College. Immediately after Saturday's result, he received texts from buddies suggesting he not pitch his best on Sunday.
"I'm ok with that," said Redmond, an even-keeled straight shooter. "I'm going to go out there and treat it like every other start. It's the last game of the year and we've got a chance to win a game. … We have a chance to knock them out, and that's baseball."
A career minor leaguer, the 28-year-old right-hander got picked up by the Blue Jays from Baltimore on waivers in March and a chance to start in July due to injuries in the rotation. A winner of his last three decisions for a 4-2 record overall, he has held opponents to two earned runs or fewer in four of the last five outings, lowering his earned run average to 3.77.The Rays will send left-hander Matt Moore (16-4, 3.23) to the mound.
"I'm still trying to earn a spot for next year, so go out there, try to impress, throw strikes," he said.
Jays manager John Gibbons described the script for the season finale as a "nice story" for Redmond. "It's been a long road for him, and I'm sure he's pretty excited about it."
Happ (5-7) missed three months after being hit by the line drive in the area of his left ear, as he also injured his knee on the play. He struggled upon return, adjusted his arm slot recently to improve his pitch command, and finished the season by holding opponents to a total of five earned runs in his final three starts.
"Feels really good," Happ said afterwards, showing palpable relief. "I've been working, feeling like I was close, and finally the last several starts putting it together. … I was really grunting, feeling like I've been giving 100 per cent trying to get the ball where I wanted it, and this arm slot helps me to be a little bit more smooth. It's more comfortable."
Lind, who's been in and out of the lineup with a wonky back, tied the game in the third inning with a run-scoring single off Rays starter Chris Archer before delivering the decisive two-run single in the fourth by slapping Wright's pitch inside the third-base bag.
Goins's homer made it 5-1 in the fifth, and Kevin Pillar topped off the four-run inning with a two-run homer off Brandon Gomes, who had replaced Wright.
If one team qualifies on Sunday and the other two teams are tied for the remaining spot, the elimination game will be played on Monday and the wild-card game on Wednesday.
If Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Texas are tied for the pair of wild-card positions after Sunday's games, there will be a two-day elimination round to decide the playoff qualifiers. Tampa Bay would play in Cleveland on Monday, and the winner of that game will advance as the first wild-card qualifier. The loser of that game would play at Texas on Tuesday to determine the other spot.
Then the one-game wild-card playoff would be held on Wednesday between the two survivors, with the winner advancing into the AL divisional series. It would be possible for the two teams that played in an elimination game on Monday to meet again in the wild-card round on Wednesday.
The setup was determined by head-to-head records. The Indians, at 7-5, own the best combined records against the Rays and Rangers. The Rays are 7-6, the Rangers 5-8. The Rays had a choice of going on the road Monday, or playing at home on Tuesday.