Rays can't find their footing against AL-best Astros

September 22nd, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Astros have clearly established themselves as the class of the American League throughout the season. They stand one win away from 100, which would match the Rays’ total as the AL’s best team last year.

And Houston looked every bit like the team to beat over the past three days at Tropicana Field.

Reliever surrendered a one-run lead in the eighth inning of the Rays’ 5-2 loss to the Astros on Wednesday night, Tampa Bay’s third straight defeat. That marked the Rays’ first time being swept at home in a series of at least three games since April 19-21, 2019, against the Red Sox, ending what had been the longest active streak in the Majors.

“You have to give them credit. There's a reason why they're pushing 100 wins and clinched the [AL West],” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “They're a very talented team. I feel like we're a talented team, but we do need to do some things a little bit better.”

The Rays have lost nine of their past 13 games. Their magic number to clinch a playoff spot remains nine, as the Orioles won on Wednesday. Tampa Bay still trails the Blue Jays, who lost Wednesday but still lead the AL Wild Card pack, by two games with 13 left to play.

It’s fair to ask if the Rays will take anything from the past three days, like how they stack up against the best team in the league. But that’s not the way they’re looking at it, veteran starter Corey Kluber said. They’ll shift their focus to the Blue Jays as they begin a four-game series on Thursday that could help swing the Wild Card race.

“I would assume the view we’ll take is that unfortunately, we lost three games, and regardless of the opponent, that's never a good feeling to have,” Kluber said. “We've got a big series coming up, and [we’ll] start over with that one.”

For starters, the Rays will need to get their lineup back on track. They scored two runs during this series and went 1-for-20 with runners in scoring position; the one hit, a sixth-inning single by Randy Arozarena, didn’t drive in a run.

“I don't think we were able to make the adjustment that we should have,” outfielder Manuel Margot said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “You've got to give credit to them for keeping us off the bases as well.”

For the third straight game, the Astros took the lead in the first inning. But Kluber bounced back from consecutive shaky outings to keep the Rays in the game. The right-hander struck out only two batters, but he issued just one walk while controlling counts and limiting hard contact.

Overall, Kluber permitted six singles and completed seven innings -- on a mere 83 pitches -- for the second time this season.

“I think the mistakes I did make, the ones that I didn't execute, probably just weren't as poorly executed,” Kluber said. “Missing to the right spots, so to speak, instead of the wrong ones.”

The Rays snapped their 25-inning scoreless streak in the sixth, when Wander Franco doubled and scored on David Peralta’s grounder off Tampa native Lance McCullers Jr. They took their first lead of the series on ’ team-leading 20th homer in the seventh.

But that lead would not last.

The Rays summoned Raley, the former Astro, to begin the eighth inning against the heart of Houston’s lineup. Raley was on a 10-game scoreless streak, with a 0.74 ERA over his past 25 appearances, and Tampa Bay’s bullpen entered the night having allowed just one run over the past 28 innings.

It took only seven pitches for the Astros to pull ahead.

“It just happened quick,” Cash said. “Brooks has put together a really good year for us. Our bullpen has been so good. He's been a big part of it.”

Jeremy Peña swatted a leadoff double to left and hustled to third on Yordan Alvarez’s flyout to right. With the Rays’ infield drawn in, Aledmys Díaz slapped a high chopper over Franco and second baseman Taylor Walls for a game-tying single. Up came Kyle Tucker, another Tampa native, who bashed a go-ahead two-run homer into the net hanging above the Ray Tank in right-center field.

“They're obviously a very good team,” Raley said. “They found some barrels there, and Tucker obviously did the damage on a bad pitch and made me pay for it. … That’s kind of their M.O. They do their damage early in counts.”