Another Rays misplay opens floodgates

Kiermaier takes blame after missed fly ball leads to Blue Jays' 5-run third

July 1st, 2022

TORONTO -- Before Friday, 14 of the Rays’ last 15 games had been decided by two runs or fewer. 

Over the course of that tightly contested stretch, the Rays won just five games, and it’s not complicated to see why. The club’s starting pitching has been stable; the bats have gradually cooled off -- which is significant -- but nothing is more glaring than Tampa Bay’s subpar defense.

Sturdy defense is mandatory when you play as many close games as the Rays have lately. The third inning of Friday’s 9-2 loss to the Blue Jays was a good example of everything that has gone wrong for Tampa Bay over this four-game losing skid.

After a double began the frame, Cavan Biggio laced a deep fly ball into the left-center-field gap, and  was all over it. The three-time Gold Glove Award winner -- playing in his first game since returning from the injured list -- raced back toward the warning track, twisting his glove for an awkward attempt at a basket catch.

The fly ball, which could’ve been caught on the backhand, glanced off Kiermaier’s glove, allowing runners to advance to second and third on a generously scored double.

“I make that play all the time,” Kiermaier said, owning his mistake. “I didn’t right there, and [I’m] very, very disappointed in myself that I allowed them momentum.”

That’s when the Blue Jays’ offense went to town on Rays starter Corey Kluber. Kiermaier’s miscue opened the door to five Toronto doubles and five runs in the inning.

“I'm gonna trust whatever [Kiermaier] chooses to do out there,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said, citing the missed catch as a game-changer. “He knows better than maybe anybody in baseball [on] how to go after fly balls. He didn't catch it. It's a ball that we've grown so accustomed to seeing him catch.”

As the hit parade continued, the hometown crowd only grew more enthused. July 1 was Canada Day, and Blue Jays fans were stoked to watch their club play at a sold-out Rogers Centre. There was plenty to cheer about, too, as the tide continued to turn against the Rays.

Near the end of the dreadful third inning, Raimel Tapia smacked a ground ball that ricocheted off the mound and into the glove of Rays second baseman Isaac Paredes. Paredes, who has been otherwise solid at the keystone this season, seemed surprised to end up with the ball, and he chucked a high throw over to Ji-Man Choi at first base. Everyone was safe, and the frame continued.

While Tampa Bay finished the game without any defensive blunders in the box score, there were easily three plays -- including a Wander Franco bobble in the second -- that could’ve been scored errors. The defense has been an uncharacteristic sore spot this season for the Rays, who entered Friday having allowed 46 unearned runs, the second-worst mark in the Majors.

“We’ve just got to execute at a higher level come game time; clean up some defensive miscues,” Kiermaier said. “We haven't been as good as we have in the past; [we've been] sloppy throughout the season.”

Toronto piled on the runs as the game went deeper, prompting outfielder Brett Phillips to take the rubber in the eighth inning. Surprisingly, Phillips retired the side without allowing a run. As much fun as it was to see a position player on the mound, it’s a bit concerning that this was Phillips’ third pitching appearance this season. That doesn’t scream competitiveness.

The Rays have been trending in the wrong direction for a little while now. Injuries have been a big part of that, but the burden still falls on Tampa Bay’s more established players to execute when called upon. That just hasn’t happened over the last two months -- and Friday’s beatdown in front of 44,445 fans offered no reassurance.

“One day after another, we’ve got to stop the bleeding,” Kiermaier said. “No doubt about it. It's just the way it's been going. But guys in this clubhouse are the ones who can change it, so we’ve gotta figure out a way to do just that.”

If there is any silver lining, it’s that Tampa Bay gets American League Cy Young Award front-runner Shane McClanahan to start Game 1 of the doubleheader on Saturday, followed by Drew Rasmussen, who returns after spending three weeks on the injured list.

The Rays still face a mighty challenge, though, as they need to play 18 innings of fundamental baseball to have a chance, a concept that hasn’t come so easily lately.