11 days on road could be key to Rays' fate

After dropping 2 to Crew, Tampa Bay begins road trip that starts in Toronto and Boston

June 29th, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays had their chances Wednesday afternoon. They left multiple runners on base in the eighth and ninth innings against the vaunted Brewers bullpen, capping a day when they stranded nine overall while recording just one hit in 12 at-bats with runners in scoring position.

“That’s just not going to get it done,” manager Kevin Cash said. “We’ve got to find ways to give our pitchers some more runs.”

While the Rays scratched and clawed at the plate, the Brewers simply slugged their way to a two-game series sweep. Tampa Bay’s bullpen surrendered a season-high-tying four home runs, bringing Milwaukee’s total to six for the series, and the Rays came up on the wrong end of another close game, losing 5-3 at Tropicana Field.

The Rays have lost five of their past six series, and they were swept at home for the first time in more than three years, snapping the longest streak in the Majors without a home sweep of any length. The last opponent to leave Tropicana Field with a series sweep was the Red Sox, who took three straight from April 19-21, 2019.

Now, the Rays must move forward as they embark on an important trip. Over the next 11 days, they’ll play 11 games in three cities: Toronto, Boston and Cincinnati. Their first eight games will come against the American League East rivals they’re chasing in the AL Wild Card race, with five in four days against the Blue Jays followed by three against the Red Sox.

“We’ve got to move on from [Wednesday’s game] quickly -- and trust that these guys will. We’ve got a bunch of big games,” Cash said. “We know we’ve got our hands full, because Toronto’s a good team. We’ve played them well, but we’ve got new faces, a younger team out there that should be pretty amped up to get to Toronto.”

Here are three storylines to monitor as the Rays begin a long, tough road trip.

Division rivals
The Yankees have built a massive lead in the AL East, a margin so sizable it’s hard to imagine anyone overcoming it. But there are three Wild Card spots at play in this expanded postseason field, and right now they belong to the Blue Jays, Red Sox and Rays.

Tampa Bay hasn’t seen Toronto since winning a three-game series from May 13-15, and it has been longer since the Rays took two of three from the Red Sox back on April 22-24. But they know it’ll be a closely contested battle all season.

“We're going to have to come to play,” shortstop Taylor Walls said. “It's going to be a dogfight. I think every series we have matched up with any AL East team is going to be that. So we've got to come ready. We will come ready. And we're looking forward to it.”

The situation isn’t quite as pressure-packed when it’s in June and July rather than August or September, but this trip also occupies a key stretch on the calendar. The Rays will cross the halfway point of their schedule while on the road, and when they return home, they’ll be a week away from the All-Star break and only three weeks out from the Aug. 2 Trade Deadline.

Power, please
Wednesday marked the Rays’ 14th straight game decided by one or two runs, and they’ve lost nine of them. They’ve played 44 such games this season, tied with the Pirates for most in the Majors, and split them, 22-22.

If any series indicated the impact one or two swings can have on games that close, it was this one. The Brewers scored nine of their 10 runs on homers over the past two days. The Rays, meanwhile, have managed just one home run over their past five games; they’ve been out-homered, 12-1, during that stretch.

“The more homers they hit, the more runs they're going to put up. So we've got to do our best to try to respond and put up more than they do, and we didn't do that,” said Walls, who drove in two of Tampa Bay’s runs on a bloop double to right-center field in the fourth inning. “We didn't have the longball like they did."

Indeed, Milwaukee came through with three homers on two-strike counts alone. Rowdy Tellez blasted Jalen Beeks’ 1-2 fastball out to center in the second, Luis Urías hit an 0-2 fastball from Shawn Armstrong off the C-ring catwalk in the fifth for a two-run homer, and Tellez launched a 1-2 curveball from rookie Calvin Faucher off the C-ring for a go-ahead homer in the eighth.

“You don’t anticipate the home runs,” Cash said. “But you go back and you look at the pitches, and you understand why they got a hold of them.”

Health is on the way
The Rays’ list of injured players is still packed with key contributors, but they should get a few back soon after seeing star shortstop Wander Franco return during this homestand.

Center fielder Kevin Kiermaier is set to come off the injured list on Friday. Right-hander Drew Rasmussen is expected to rejoin the rotation in Toronto. After one more Triple-A rehab start, right-hander Luis Patiño could be ready for big league action later in the trip. The Rays also have received good news in recent days on second baseman Brandon Lowe and high-leverage reliever Pete Fairbanks.