Pepiot bit by long ball, but takes away 'a lot of positives'

April 14th, 2024

ST. PETERSBURG -- spun around on the mound, briefly looked down then put his hands on his knees as he watched Thairo Estrada’s 105.8 mph fly ball sail into the left-field seats at Tropicana Field. He immediately asked for a new baseball, snapped it into his glove and returned to the mound.

Pepiot made a bunch of quality pitches on Saturday, carrying forward the momentum he established during a six-inning, 11-strikeout gem at Coors Field last Sunday, but that 95.8 mph fastball was one of the two he wanted back immediately after the Rays’ 11-2 loss to the Giants.

“I felt good. … Obviously, two longballs kind of sit in the back of your mind a little bit more,” Pepiot said. “But overall, looking back and taking a few minutes to think about it, there's a lot of positives to take away.”

Pepiot gave up four runs over five innings, earning his second loss with the Rays. He’ll soon be able to look back at all he did well in what manager Kevin Cash called a “really strong outing.” He had his whole three-pitch mix working, inducing 15 swinging strikes on 85 pitches and striking out six batters while only walking one.

“You don't want to think about the negative stuff going into the next one. Let's just take the positives, learn from the negatives,” Pepiot said. “Execute a couple more pitches, and [it's] a totally different ballgame.”

He was essentially a pair of two-out, two-strike pitches away from a much better-looking final line. That might have also reshaped a game that went off the rails when San Francisco scored six runs against reliever Chris Devenski, ultimately leading to catcher Ben Rortvedt working two innings in his first professional pitching appearance.

The first came with two outs in the fourth inning and the game tied at 1. Up came Estrada, who flied out in his first at-bat. Three pitches into the at-bat, Pepiot was ahead in the count and one offering away from getting out of the inning.

The right-hander tried to fire another fastball above the strike zone, away from the right-handed-hitting Estrada, but it leaked down and in and wound up over the middle of the plate. Estrada didn’t miss, sending it a projected 397 feet out to left field.

The second came in the fifth inning. Jung Hoo Lee doubled to right with two outs, bringing LaMonte Wade Jr. to the plate. Pepiot went back and forth with Wade, who fouled off a changeup, slider and fastball, then took another heater to work the count full. Pepiot went to his bread-and-butter changeup, and Wade pulled it out to right-center field for a two-run homer that put the Giants up 4-1.

“Leave balls over the middle of the plate, they're going to take advantage of it,” Pepiot said.

Even a mistake-free outing from Pepiot may not have been enough for the Rays to extend their winning streak to four games, though. Facing Tampa Bay for the first time, right-hander Logan Webb held the Rays to one run on six singles and a walk over seven strong innings.

Webb, who finished second to new teammate/former Ray/Sunday starter Blake Snell in last year’s National League Cy Young Award voting, stifled a Rays lineup that is missing three key left-handed hitters (Brandon Lowe, Josh Lowe and Jonathan Aranda) and not getting much out of active All-Stars Yandy Díaz and Randy Arozarena.

Arozarena is batting .192 with a .590 OPS, and he’s in a 5-for-40 skid since his last home run on March 31. Díaz, hitting .203 with a .550 OPS, has two hits in his last 24 at-bats as part of a 7-for-50 stretch -- a rare extended slump for the reigning AL batting champ.

“I'm the type of player that likes to compete against himself, so I think I'm just putting the pressure on myself,” Díaz said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “In these moments, the struggle is happening.”

Devenski walked the bases loaded before giving up three runs in the sixth, as the Rays bullpen’s command issues persisted, then he surrendered homers to Jorge Soler and Estrada in the seventh. Down by eight runs at that point, and two days into a stretch of 13 consecutive games without an off-day, the Rays asked Rortvedt to pitch the final two innings.

The strong-armed catcher threw pitches that ranged from 35.1 to 88.2 mph and struck out Tyler Fitzgerald in the eighth, providing a bit of levity on an otherwise-frustrating day for the Rays.

“His curveball stinks. I told him that after the first inning -- let's eliminate that pitch,” Cash said. “Look, it's funny after the fact. In the moment, you really appreciate what the guy's doing -- and I know our bullpen does.”