The Rays’ winning streak had to end at some point, and it did on Tuesday night -- one victory shy of tying the franchise record of 12 set in 2004 -- in a 2-1 loss to the Royals at Tropicana Field.
Rich Hill and Kevin Kiermaier did just about everything in their power to keep the streak alive, though.
Hill continued his incredible run of starts, allowing only two runs on six hits while completing eight innings for the first time since he took a no-hitter into the 10th inning in Pittsburgh on Aug. 23, 2017. And Kiermaier backed him up with a pair of spectacular catches, which Hill called “two of the best catches I think I’ve seen.”
Hill became the oldest player in franchise history to appear in a game, taking the mound at the age of 41 years and 75 days. But that’s proving to be just another number for Hill. Here are a few others to consider:
• 13 strikeouts, a career high achieved in his 17th Major League season and 302nd career appearance
• 1.26, his ERA over his last six outings
• And 27, Hill’s career-high swinging strike total. That’s tied with Tyler Glasnow (on April 12) for the most in club history, the highest by a left-hander this season and the second-most by any pitcher this year behind only Jacob deGrom’s 29 on April 23.
“Everyone knows he's the oldest [pitcher] in the league. And I said, ‘No, I don't like the wording of that,’” Kiermaier said. “He’s just been on the planet longer than anyone in the big leagues. There's nothing old about what he's doing out there.”
Hill toyed with hitters’ timing, speeding up his delivery on occasion and at one point slowing it down with a Clayton Kershaw-esque pause before firing a fastall by Salvador Perez. He presented different looks, dropping down to a sidearm slot to spin some breaking balls by right-handed batters. And he was extremely efficient, getting through eight innings on 99 pitches.
Hill became the fourth pitcher at his age to record at least 13 strikeouts, joining Randy Johnson (2008), Nolan Ryan (13 times) and Gaylord Perry (1982). He’s only the sixth Rays pitcher to put together a game with at least 13 strikeouts and no walks, although he joined James Shields as the only other Tampa Bay pitcher to strike out at least 13 hitters and lose.
The Royals came in expecting a bunch of curveballs from Hill, but he found his fastball possessed unusual carry early on as he struck out five the first time through the lineup. Hill wound up getting 18 of his 27 swinging strikes with his fastball, attributing the pitch’s life to a mechanical change he made to create more acceleration during his between-starts bullpen session at TD Ballpark.
“He had a pretty electric fastball, just a lot of command at the top of the zone, right where he wanted to establish pitches early on,” manager Kevin Cash said. “I think it opened up some avenues for him to get creative out there with the breaking ball and the different deliveries that we saw.”
He got some help, too, as Kiermaier made two highlight-reel plays. First came a five-star catch at the warning track in left field to rob Andrew Benintendi of extra bases in the second inning, then a leaping play at the wall to thwart Benintendi again in the eighth.
“That's why, as far as I'm concerned, he's the best out there,” Cash said of Kiermaier.
“It would have been a lot cooler if we were able to get the win tonight,” Kiermaier added. “I just want my pitchers and my team to have confidence in me out there. So that's what I love to do.”
What had been a red-hot Rays lineup managed only one run on four hits, their fewest of each since being shut out on four hits against Gerrit Cole and the Yankees on May 12 -- their last loss before Tuesday night. Meanwhile, Kansas City made the most of a little bit of offense: Carlos Santana’s fourth-inning home run and three hits strung together to plate the go-ahead run in the sixth off Hill.
“Wish he would have gotten the win. He pitched deservingly to get the win,” Cash said. “But sometimes that's baseball, and their guy pitched really well also.”
With their run of consecutive victories halted at 11, the Rays could look back at the second-longest winning streak in franchise history. In the time between their last two losses, they improved to 30-20, moved into first place in the American League East, reestablished confidence in their lineup and reminded people why they’re still a dangerous team.
“Guys are pulling for other guys just as hard as they pull for themselves in those situations,” Hill said. “This is something that is obviously a great step in the right direction, and we've got to pick back up tomorrow and start again.”