ARLINGTON, Texas – Alex Speas struck out his first three batters in his big league debut for the Texas Rangers, getting two outs with his first one when All-Star catcher Jonah Heim threw out a runner trying to steal second base.
That relief from Speas, a second-round draft pick in 2016, came before Heim's big three-run homer in the eighth inning as the AL West leaders stretched their winning streak to six games with a 5-1 victory over the slumping Tampa Bay Rays on Wednesday.
The Rays (60-39) are 3-11 in July, and not alone atop the AL East for the first time since being tied after winning on opening day as part of their 13-0 start. Baltimore (58-37) is ahead by percentage points after an 8-5 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Texas manager Bruce Bochy was looking for a soft landing spot for the debut of the 25-year-old Speas, who last year was coaching youth baseball. It didn't quite work out that way, but the reliever looked quite comfortable anyway.
Speas had been through Tommy John surgery, the birth of his daughter and the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season without any games to play before stepping away from the pros.
“Being honest, fighting mental health sometimes is not the easiest thing to do. There’s some long nights, there’s some long days, and it’s a hard fight to get through it all,” he said. “But glad we made it here. And I thank the organization for having trust in me and giving me the opportunity to come back and do this.”
The Rays, who host Baltimore in a four-game series starting Thursday, had 10 hits. But they got their only run on Jose Siri’s 19th homer with one out in the ninth.
“We just couldn’t get anything going, and that’s the way it goes sometimes, but it does feel like it is accumulating quite a bit,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “We’re not creating opportunities like we’re capable of, and the things that we’re doing well are probably not showing up at the rate that we’d like.”
Texas (58-39) wrapped up its second three-game series sweep since the All-Star break, and it has its longest win streak since also winning six in a row in 2019. Leody Taveras hit his 11th homer on the first pitch of the third inning against Zack Littell (0-2), and he added an RBI single in the seventh.
Brock Burke (4-2) struck out three over two scoreless innings in relief of starter Jon Gray, who departed with one out in the fifth because of a bruised left shin after being hit by a comebacker. Gray said he was OK and planned to make his next start.
Speas took over with one out in the seventh, which ended with pinch-hitter Wander Franco striking out on the same pitch that Manuel Margot was thrown out trying to steal. Speas then pitched a perfect eighth with two more strikeouts — of leadoff hitter Yandy Díaz, who dropped to the ground after one of the fastballs, and Randy Arozarena, who didn't appear comfortable in the batter's box.
“I can’t say enough about what he did. That kid really showed great poise, really handled the situation so well,” Bochy said.
Speas rejoined the Rangers organization in spring training, and went 4-0 with two saves and a 1.00 ERA in 28 relief appearances combined at Triple-A Round Rock and Double-A Frisco. He had 59 strikeouts over 36 innings.
All-Star right fielder Adolis García got his MLB-leading 11th outfield assist when Josh Lowe tried to score from first base on Margot’s double to end the second inning. García made a strong throw from the warning track to second baseman Marcus Semien for the relay to catcher Heim.
García left with a bruised left arm after getting hit by a pitch in the eighth.
Arozarena, also an All-Star, entered as a pinch hitter in the fifth and stayed in to play left field. He crashed into the wall on a running, leaping catch in the seventh. While sitting on the ground, he flashed a thumbs-up to signal he was OK.
Rays: A showdown between the top teams in the AL East. “It’s a big series. I’m not going to lie. It’s a big series, they’ve played incredibly well,” Cash said even before the finale in Texas.
Rangers: Texas opens a three-game series Friday night against the Dodgers. Los Angeles hasn’t been to Globe Life Field since since winning the World Series there — in six games against the Rays. The NL Division Series and NL Championship Series were also there at the end of the pandemic-impacted 2020 season.