Ryan Pepiot starts, Shawn Armstrong ends Rays’ tense win over Rockies

DENVER — Ryan Pepiot had the fun part on Sunday.

Pitching with short sleeves in the low-50s temperatures, he threw the ball where he wanted almost every time while piling up a career-high 11 strikeouts over six scoreless innings.

Shawn Armstrong had to do the dirty work.

He came on to get the Rays out of a bases-loaded, no-outs jam in the eighth to preserve a two-run lead (thanks in part to Brandon Lowe’s double-play turn), then worked the ninth with the bullpen shorthanded, allowing one run and the potential tying run to reach base before getting the final two outs.

The result was a 3-2 victory over the Rockies, the first series win of the season for the Rays and a deep sigh of relief after a third straight tense, dramatic, no-lead-is safe, down-to-the-last pitch game at Coors Field.

“It’s been some interesting ballgames here. Ready to get to Anaheim,” manager Kevin Cash said of the three-game series against the Angels that starts Monday.

In his second start for his new team, Pepiot was what the Rays hoped they were getting in the trade of Tyler Glasnow to the Dodgers.

After a rough debut, including six runs and four walks April 1 against the Rangers, Pepiot’s focus was on throwing strikes, a basic but important task for him to be successful.

Sunday he did, and he was.

Able to mix both his changeup and slider with a firm fastball that hit 96 mph, Pepiot was in control and in command from the start, allowing three hits and no walks, throwing 67 of his 94 pitches for strikes and getting 21 swings-and-misses.

“Really impressive by Pep,” Cash said. “The commitment to the strike zone is what is allowing him to have so much success. Attack, attack, attack. Just not letting up.”

Catcher Ben Rortvedt, acquired just before opening day, hadn’t caught a pitch Pepiot threw before Sunday’s pregame bullpen but said it proved to be an easy afternoon.

“That was a lot of fun,” Rortvedt said. “We got on the same page really early, and he was pounding the zone with all three pitches. He did a really good job.”

Added Lowe: “It was very easy to play behind Pepiot (Sunday).”

Pepiot, 26, had a good time as well, the Indiana native claiming the chilly weather “wasn’t that bad” and showing it by pitching not only without long sleeves, but (as he usually does) with nothing under his jersey.

He also made some history, becoming the first visiting pitcher, and third overall, to throw six scoreless innings with 10 or more strikeouts and no walks in the 30-season history of Coors Field.

Pepiot said the best part of his outing, noting the Rays’ philosophy to attack the zone and get ahead of hitters, was his zero in the walks column.

“That’s No. 1 for me,” he said. “Strikeouts are great .... but efficient innings are better than striking out the world. The no walks, it’s the big one. That’s the biggest takeaway for me.”

The Rays (5-5) built an early lead with two, two-out runs in the second, including Austin Shenton’s first major-league hit and RBI, and a run in the third when Isaac Paredes singled in Lowe.

The Rays were operating with basically a four-man bullpen, with Jason Adam, Colin Poche, Chris Devenski and Jacob Waguespack unavailable due to previous use.

Garrett Cleavinger started the seventh, put two on, and Phil Maton had to get them out of the jam. But then Maton, after a leadoff triple by Jake Cave to right that defensive replacement Amed Rosario misplayed, made his own mess in the eighth, allowing an RBI single and two walks.

With the bases loaded and a 3-1 lead, Cash summoned Armstrong.

He got Ryan McMahon, who hit Friday’s walkoff grand slam, to hit a grounder that Paredes snagged before making an off-balance throw home. Then, Armstrong got Kris Bryant to ground to shortstop Jose Caballero, who gloved the ball but rushed and threw slightly behind second. Lowe reached across the base for it, righted himself after his cleats stuck and threw to first, with Shenton making a nice scoop to complete the double play.

“Just the perfect storm of everything right there,” Lowe said. “Glad we were able to turn it.”

With Armstrong able to go another inning, Cash decided to save usual closer Pete Fairbanks for a potential 10th inning. Armstrong opened the ninth with a walk, and an infield out and RBI single cut the lead to 3-2. But he then got a strikeout and a groundout, and a save.

Lowe was among those raving about Armstrong’s performance.

“Absolutely phenomenal,” he said. “That’s about as high-leverage and high-stress as it can be for a reliever. To come out of there and do what he did, I mean, hats off to the guy. Can’t can’t ask for anything more.”

Armstrong said he was just doing his part: “We got the W. That’s what’s most important.”

Given how the weekend went, that sounded about right for the Rays.

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