ARLINGTON, Texas — Tuesday started out as a pain in the neck for the Rays, as center fielder Kevin Kiermaier woke with a severe one that kept him out of the lineup and left him extremely frustrated with an uncertain timetable to return.
The discomfort seemed to shift to a different location mid-game as Nick Solak, a prospect traded in July to the Rangers, hit a two-run homer against his ex-mates that looked like it might be enough for a Texas win.
But at the end of the long night, the Rays ended up feeling pretty good, as they pulled out a 5-3 win in 11 innings.
First they tied the game in the eighth, when Joey Wendle tripled and Austin Meadows, working on another AL Player of the Week award, homered, the 29th of his stellar season.
And then they won it in the 11th with some help, scoring the go-ahead run after the Rangers made two throwing errors on the same play. With Rays on second and first, Kean Wong rolled a ball up the first base line. Pitcher Emmanuel Chase had trouble picking it up, then threw past first. Second baseman Rougned Odor then sailed a throw to second into left field, and Nate Lowe raced home.
"That win was really good tonight,'' Meadows said. "The first six-seven innings were kinda quiet, but being able to do that and deliver in the eighth put that momentum in our dugout and we took advantage of it and ended up winning the game, which was huge.
"That goes to show the guys, our team, we never quit. We’re going to keep fighting, whether we’re up or down, and continue to try to win games. That’s the goal.''
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Guillermo Heredia singled in an insurance run. Pete Fairbanks, acquired for Solak, closed it out after allowing a lead-off single for his first career save, getting the final out after the Rays appeared to have the won on a replay reversal of a safe call at first that somehow didn’t go their way.
That inspired win extended the Rays’ latest winning streak to a season-high matching six, and continued the momentum in what is now an 11-1 run that pushed them to the top of the AL wild card standings.
At 87-59, they’re still there with some room to spare with 16 games remaining, maintaining a 1½-game lead over the A’s, who blasted the Astros 21-7, and staying at least two ahead of the Indians, who beat the Angels 8-0.
"I think I’m most excited about the fact that we saw the scores up top. with Cleveland and Oakland both leading, and to be able to come away with a win in that game when we were down for most of it is first and foremost most important,'' Fairbanks said.
With Kiermaier, Tommy Pham, Eric Sogard and top two catchers Travis d’Arnaud and Mike Zunino out of the lineup for assorted reasons and veteran Lance Lynn on the mound, the Rays didn’t do much offensively over the first seven innings, just four hits and one run. Also of note, Avisail Garcia left in the eighth inning and is day to day due to a strained glute. (With several outfielders limited, the Rays could call up speedster Johnny Davis, signed recently out of the Mexican League, to add depth.)
The Rangers, meanwhile, scored three on three hits off Rays starter Ryan Yarbrough, who pitched well save for the homer to Solak on a changeup. "Outstanding,'' manager Kevin Cash said.
But then the Rangers switched to Rafael Montero for the eighth, and the Rays took quick advantage. Wendle laced Montero’s third pitch for a triple to right. Two pitches later, just crowned AL Player of the Week Meadows laced a two-run homer to center, his fifth in his last eight games.
"That one was big,'' Meadows said. "It put us back into it.''
"He’s been a superstar for us,'' Cash said. "Kinda stay out of his way. Pretty special what he’s done for us here at the plate.''
Nick Anderson continued his dominance in the eighth, and Colin Poche worked into and then out of a mess in the ninth by walking two with two outs.
The 11th inning rally started with a single by Matt Duffy, then a fielder’s choice grounder by Lowe and a strikeout by Ji-Man Choi. Willy Adames made the first big play, hustling to beat out an infield single. Then Wong hit the slow roller up the first base line that set everyone into motion, his hustle down the line and Adames taking a wide turn at second which induced Odor’s errant throw also being key.
"Kind of a funky play,'' Cash said. "We see pitchers bobble balls a lot. But Odor I believe threw it to (shortstop Elvis) Andrus, though he had a guy picked off and sailed it, and we kind of benefited from it.''
The absence the Rays were most concerned about is Kiermaier, given the severe neck strain that is causing him significant pain, limited mobility and extreme frustration.
“It’s driving me absolutely crazy to be quite honest,’’ Kiermaier said before the game. “It makes you want to pull your hair out.’’
The pain is intense, “like someone hit me with a baseball bat in my neck,’’ he said, and also omnipresent, with every action having a reaction. “I can’t really move my head in any direction without feeling a lot of pain, discomfort.’’
Making it worse is that there is no clear reason.
Kiermaier underwent an MRI and was seen by a doctor on Tuesday and told there was nothing structurally wrong, but also no set timetable for when he would feel better.
“This isn’t like anything I’ve ever dealt with,’’ he said. “I’ve had neck tightness before — this is much more severe and a little bit different.’’
As much as Kiermaier is pained by the actual injury, which he traced back to doing his usual work on a foam roller device before Sunday’s game, he seems just as stung by being out of the lineup again, having just returned from a longer than expected absence, missing six of eight games after bruising ribcage muscles running into the outfield wall in Baltimore Aug. 25.
“It’s been a rough couple weeks for me battling a few things, but the team is playing great right now,’’ Kiermaier said.
“It just seems like it’s always something. I’m very frustrated, aggravated with how my body has responded to a few things as of late. I just want to go out there and play without thinking about things with my body.’’
And though Kiermaier didn’t come right out and say it, he also seems bothered by the criticism from outsiders questioning the severity of the injury and maybe even his toughness in handling it.
“I want to be in center field each and every inning and I think a lot of other people want to see me out there as well,’’ he said. “If everyone could kind of see what I feel or how I feel it would make a lot more sense, but that’s not a thing.’’
He sounded a bit regretful about playing Sunday after initially feeling some tightness and then getting treatment from team massage therapist Ray Allen, which he said he never does that close to game time, and doing his workout with the foam roller.
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“Something just made the perfect movement and that’s what threw everything off,’’ he said.
Then he aggravated it during the game, making a diving catch in the fifth inning.
So Kiermaier will do what he can do get back, under going laser heat, muscle stimulation and acupuncture treatments among others and taking anti-inflammatories, and to make sure he is helping the team when he does.
“I’m a little stressed out right now,’’ he said. “I can’t let that affect me or the healing process. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t. I want to be out there on the field every game every inning and here I am not in the starting lineup once again.
“Frustration is the word I could sit here and say over and over.’’
Contact Marc Topkin at email@example.com. Follow @TBTImes_Rays.