Eflin, Rays falter as AL East race tightens

July 16th, 2023

KANSAS CITY -- Despite an hour-long rain delay before first pitch, Sunday turned out to be a quick day at Kauffman Stadium for the Rays.

’s start was cut short after three innings, Royals starter Brady Singer breezed through most of the afternoon and the Rays saw their season-long lead in the American League East suddenly reduced to just one game after an 8-4 loss played in just one hour and 54 minutes, which tied the second-shortest nine-inning game in franchise history.

Unable to complete the three-game sweep after winning both halves of Saturday’s doubleheader, the Rays (60-36) are now behind the soaring Orioles (57-35) in the loss column. Afterward, the Rays lamented the missed opportunity but found satisfaction in winning the series, their first series victory since taking two of three in Arizona last month.

“We won two out of three. I'm pleased with that. If we go win two out of three of the rest of the season, we're going to be in a really good spot,” manager Kevin Cash said. “We can nitpick how we did it, how we get there, who we're playing, who we're not playing -- winning is winning. And we came up short today. Would love to have finished it, but that's challenging to do.”

It wasn’t the Rays’ day from the start. Or before the start, actually.

While warming up in the bullpen after the stormy skies cleared, Eflin noticed his delivery felt out of sync. Typically able to pitch with pinpoint precision, Eflin said he couldn’t locate the ball and found his sinker was cutting more than sinking.

“Just felt a little off,” Eflin said.

He gave up one run in the first inning, as Salvador Perez singled and scored on a double by MJ Melendez. It got worse in the second inning, as Eflin gave up four runs on five hits in a six-batter span, although his uncharacteristic performance was mirrored by some equally unusual misplays by center fielder Manuel Margot.

First, Margot took an awkward and unsuccessful leap toward a Drew Waters RBI triple that bounced off the outfield wall. Then, with two outs, Bobby Witt Jr. crushed a 109.7 mph line drive that sailed over Margot’s head, and the typically strong defensive outfielder got turned around trying to track it down, only to see it land for a two-run triple.

“I think the balls off the bat were just hit a little bit harder than I thought,” Margot said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “I think I probably had a chance on both of them. They were both hit pretty hard. I couldn't get a good read on them.”

Taking into account Kansas City’s five-run lead and Eflin’s workload, which is tracking toward the career-high mark of 163 1/3 innings he set in 2019 with the Phillies, the Rays decided to pull him after three innings and 46 pitches.

Eflin has dealt with knee issues in recent years, but his early exit had nothing to do with any injury. The 29-year-old right-hander said Saturday he feels better than ever physically, despite now being one out away from matching his highest innings total since ‘19, and reiterated Sunday that he felt “great.” But the Rays believe they must take a long-term approach, prioritizing Eflin’s ability to pitch effectively down the stretch and into October.

The highly competitive Eflin said he wanted to stay in the game, no matter how many runs he gave up, to take some pressure off the Rays’ bullpen. But he understood the logic behind his abbreviated outing.

“He's in a great spot. We want to keep it that way,” Cash said. “Just another chance for us to freshen him up and monitor the innings.”

“What we talked about made sense. I didn't have that many innings last year, and it's either limit me now or later in the season,” Eflin added. “It's kind of really hard to argue that. I respect the decision to take me out, although I'm a competitor and want to stay in the game.”

With his role moving forward in question, right-hander Yonny Chirinos took over and surrendered three well-struck solo homers over 4 2/3 innings to extend the Rays’ deficit.

The Rays didn’t put up much of a fight against Singer most of the day, meanwhile, seeing only 35 pitches through four innings and 70 through seven as the sinkerballer forced early contact and a bunch of quick outs. Isaac Paredes broke up Singer’s shutout with a leadoff homer in the eighth, and Francisco Mejía added a three-run shot later in the inning. But it was too little, too late.

“He was filling up the zone so well, I think changing the approach to see more pitches wasn't going to benefit us a ton,” Luke Raley said of Singer. “You've got to go after pitches that you think you can get to. He was just missing the barrel.”