Frustrating end to tough series as Rays slip in WC race

July 24th, 2022

KANSAS CITY -- When the Rays were swept by the Reds in Cincinnati two weeks ago, infielder  pointed out that Tampa Bay tends to play up to its competition. Or, in some cases, down to its competition.

The team proved Díaz right heading into the break by winning series against the contending Blue Jays, Red Sox (twice) and Orioles, but with three straight losses to the last-place Reds sandwiched in the middle of it all. They may have proven his point again this weekend.

The Rays lost 4-2 to the Royals on Sunday afternoon, dropping a three-game series to a club with one of the American League’s worst records. It was Tampa Bay's first series defeat against Kansas City since May 8-11, 2017, and its first series lost at Kauffman Stadium since May 30-June 1, 2016.

“I don't know why, when we play teams like this, stuff like that happens,” Díaz said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “But that's just baseball, I guess.”

Among the things that happened to the Rays in Sunday’s finale: their pitchers gave up 14 hits, their lineup managed only five of their own (and just one in three at-bats with runners in scoring position), and, most critically, their defense committed three misplays that led directly to Royals runs.

“Just kind of a frustrating game. We didn't hit. We didn't defend as well as we could,” manager Kevin Cash said. “They found a way to capitalize on our opportunities that we didn't make plays on.”

In the first inning, the Royals took advantage when Whit Merrifield’s 102.8 mph smash deflected off shortstop Taylor Walls and caromed into center field for a leadoff double. After an Andrew Benintendi groundout, Bobby Witt Jr. smacked an RBI single to right off left-hander Jeffrey Springs.

“I should have had [it],” Walls said, “and we would have been out of the inning there without any damage.”

In the second, Michael A. Taylor struck out but reached on a passed ball that got by catcher Christian Bethancourt. One base hit and a sacrifice fly later, the Royals had a 2-0 lead.

“We just weren't as crisp as we'd like to be or normally are,” Cash said.

Still, the Rays had their chances.

Díaz was almost solely responsible for tying the game, continuing a hot streak that’s seen him reach base safely in a career-high 22 consecutive starts. He launched his first homer since May 14 out to center field off Royals starter Kris Bubic in the third, then doubled and scored the tying run in the sixth on Luke Raley’s sacrifice fly.

Springs held the line in his first start back from the injured list, working around a ton of traffic for 4 1/3 innings. The lefty allowed a career-high eight hits and didn’t work a single clean inning, but he still limited the Royals to just one hit with a runner in scoring position and kept them at two runs (one earned).

It was a particularly admirable effort given the circumstances. Springs had spent the past three weeks in the hospital with his wife and infant son, Stetson, who was hospitalized due to an infection in his spinal fluid and finally returned home Friday.

“It was a very stressful three weeks,” Springs said. “Feels good to be back.”

After putting all that pressure on the Rays, the Royals broke through in the seventh against lefty reliever Brooks Raley. With two outs and a runner on first, Nicky Lopez hit a grounder to the right side of the infield. Ideally, second baseman Yu Chang would have fielded the ball and flipped it to Walls for the force out at second base.

But the typically slick-fielding Walls felt like he could cut off the ball and make the out at first on his own. Both middle infielders went after it, the ball skipped under Walls' glove, Chang’s throw to first was too late, and the Royals suddenly had two runners on with two outs.

Once again, the Rays paid for their mistake, as Hunter Dozier hit a go-ahead single to center.

“Left a few plays out there I feel like I could have made,” Walls said. “That's two runs. Had I had those plays again, I think I make both of them. That's frustrating, but at the end of the day, you can't really hold your head about it.”

Nor will the Rays have time to do so after a disappointing series defeat. Sunday’s loss knocked them out of the top spot in the AL Wild Card race heading into a four-game set in Baltimore.

“I expect to win every series, simple as that,” Cash said. “The Royals played well. We're a good team. We should find ways to win series.”