Blue Jays prepare to face off against the Rays and history

Boston Red Sox v Tampa Bay Rays
Boston Red Sox v Tampa Bay Rays / Julio Aguilar/GettyImages

If there’s something that can consistently be counted on in a Major League Baseball season, it’s the Tampa Bay Rays being a pest for the Blue Jays.

The Rays arrive in Toronto on Friday for the first of 13 games between the AL East rivals this season. But there’s something different about these Rays. Traditionally a small-ball, pitching-dominated club, this version of the Rays has transformed into a full-fledged juggernaut.

The Rays enter the series against the Blue Jays 13-0, tied with the 1987 Milwaukee Brewers and 1982 Atlanta Braves for the best start in modern MLB history. They’ve already scored 101 runs; the next-closest team in the league has 79. Their 32 home runs are eight more than any other team and the third-most ever through a team’s first 13 games. They lead the league in fewest runs allowed.

The Rays are coming off completing a sweep of the Boston Red Sox yesterday that featured a rare occurrence: the Rays actually trailed in the game, for one inning. The Rays have been behind after just six of their 117 innings so far this season. Before the Red Sox took a 3-1 lead on Thursday, Tampa hadn’t trailed after any inning since April 4.

Their best pitcher, Tyler Glasnow, hasn’t thrown a pitch so far this season. They made only one key acquisition in the offseason, signing Zach Eflin to a $40M deal, the largest ever given out by the club. The Rays, instead, have brought back the same familiar faces that have tormented the Blue Jays. They've just reached another level of dominance.

Brandon Lowe already has five home runs this season after hitting just eight in 65 injury-plagued games last season. Wander Franco had six homers in 83 games in 2022; he’s hit four this year. In 2022, the Rays ranked 25th in the majors in homers and didn’t hit their 32nd until their 36th game on May 16.

The Rays, thanks to their suddenly power-hitting offense and elite pitching staff, have outscored opponents by 71 runs during their 13-game streak. The last team even to have a plus-50 run different through 13 games was the 1981 Athletics. Only three other teams in the Live Ball Era had won 13 consecutive games while outscoring opponents by that many runs: Francisco Lindor’s 2017 Indians, Hank Greenberg’s 1934 Tigers, and Pie Traynor’s 1922 Pirates.

The task of stopping this run and preventing history from being made on Friday night at the Rogers Centre falls to the Blue Jays, who are 33-53 against their nemesis over the last five seasons. They’ll face Drew Rasmussen, who in his two starts so far this year hasn’t allowed a run while giving up just three hits and striking out 15. The Blue Jays will counter with the beleaguered José Berríos, who carries an 11.17 ERA into his third start of the year. It’s a monumental task facing manager John Schneider’s club as they aim to become the first team to defeat the Rays this season.

“Uniquely hot. They’re obviously a good team and they’re a complete team. They’re playing a good brand of baseball right now. We know how they deploy and how they match up. I think it’ll be a fun series. But it’s a credit to what they do, the start that they got off to,” Schneider said on Thursday following the Blue Jays’ 3-1 loss to the Tigers.

Fifteen clubs, half the league, haven’t done what the Rays have to start the year at any point in the last 50 seasons. The Blue Jays have never won 13 straight games in their franchise history. The Red Sox, who just got swept by the Rays, haven’t done it since 1948. The Tigers last won 13 in a row in 1934.

The 8-5 Blue Jays, despite being three games above .500, find themselves already five games out of the division lead. They’re further behind in the AL East than the 3-10 Athletics in the West.

But they do have historical precedent on their side. The last team to start 13-0, the Brewers 36 years ago, went on a 12-game losing streak a month later. They went 78-71 the rest of the season and missed the playoffs by seven games. That season, from a Blue Jays perspective, is best remembered for the Brewers sweeping the Blue Jays in late September as Toronto lost their last seven games to lose the division to the Tigers.

It’s been a magical run so far for the Rays, but there are still 149 games to play. The Blue Jays can put a stop to history tonight, or be run over like everyone else that has gone up against the powerful Rays this season.