TORONTO -- In a pinch, the Rays turned to a familiar -- though sometimes unsteady -- figure in Ryan Yarbrough.
Yarbrough struggled to a 5.65 ERA with the club earlier this season, prompting a demotion to Triple-A. But when Jeffrey Springs, who was originally scheduled to start on Thursday at Rogers Centre, was scratched for a family medical emergency, Yarbrough got the call from Durham, handling the bulk innings in a 4-1 Rays loss.
Behind opener Matt Wisler, Yarbrough wasn’t spectacular, but he did what works for him, dipping and dunking his way through a Blue Jays lineup he’s dominated in the past. The 30-year-old entered Thursday with eight wins and a 3.19 career ERA vs. Toronto, and he kept his recipe simple again.
Yarbrough flipped in variations of his slider and changeup all over the zone, and while he didn’t strike anyone out, the soft-tossing lefty kept the Jays’ mighty bats in check for as long as he could.
“I think it was just a matter of staying really aggressive, honestly,” Yarbrough said. “Obviously they have a really good lineup.”
Yarbrough kept it a tight contest until the seventh, when Santiago Espinal made contact with a hanging slider. Yarbrough keeled over in frustration as Espinal’s back-breaking two-run blast upped Toronto’s lead to three runs.
The homer juiced Yarbrough’s stat line to four earned runs through 5 1/3 innings. Not a phenomenal showing, but still his best performance in a while.
On the other side, the Rays’ bats struggled to build any momentum against Blue Jays starter Yusei Kikuchi. With each wild hack or missed opportunity, it has become more apparent why the Rays have been struggling offensively this month. Entering Thursday, Rays hitters had batted just .234 and produced a .295 weighted on-base average, marks that were 24th and 26th in the Majors, respectively.
In one of the only bright moments of the game, Isaac Paredes homered off Kikuchi in the fourth inning. The 23-year-old got the barrel to a high-and-inside slider and cranked a towering blast that traveled a Statcast-projected 379 feet, just inside the left-field foul pole for his team-leading 11th homer of the year.
Acquired in a trade with the Tigers for Austin Meadows before Opening Day, Paredes has slugged his way to a .903 OPS. He’s been a key to success for this Rays club that sits in the bottom 10 in the Majors in home runs. His solo blast just wasn’t enough in this one.
“I think the confidence is there,” Paredes said through team interpreter Manny Navarro. “Whether I do well or even if I do get out in an at-bat, I still have the confidence there. The results come [when] the confidence and the mentality stays positive.”
If we zoom out a little, the losing effort was magnified by the situation the Rays find themselves in. First, the Rays now play four games against the Blue Jays in the next three days, including a doubleheader on Saturday. It's difficult to manage a pitching staff during any doubleheader, much less one that is on the road without two solid bullpen arms -- Brooks Raley and Ryan Thompson -- because of Canada's ban on visitors who have not received the COVID-19 vaccine.
“You know how talented Toronto is offensively,” manager Kevin Cash said before Thursday’s contest. “So you're trying to manage games to win; you're also trying to manage workloads.”
It’s a logistical quagmire right now for Cash, who’s still configuring his rotation for the rest of the week. Thankfully, help is on the way. Drew Rasmussen -- who’s been out nearly three weeks with a hamstring issue -- is expected to pitch sometime this weekend, possibly in the first or second game of Saturday’s twin bill.
It’s hard to believe, but getting through the Toronto series settles only a portion of the Rays’ worries. Thursday was the first of 11 consecutive road games, as the Rays travel to Boston afterwards for a three-game set with another divisional rival.
Life in the AL East isn’t fun or fair, but it’s what Tampa Bay has to deal with. Veteran Kevin Kiermaier knows that better than anyone.
“We've had some fun battles over the years with [AL East opponents],” said Kiermaier, who’s expected to return from the injured list Friday. “I feel like we've been pretty neck-and-neck. Hopefully we come out in a winning way in 2022.”
Tampa Bay and the Guardians are currently deadlocked for the last AL Wild Card spot, and the Rays' position as the All-Star break draws near could depend on how this grind of a road trip plays out.