'It hurts': Poche's struggles cost Rays Wild Card lead

September 14th, 2022

TORONTO -- For the second time in three games, one of the Rays’ most trusted relievers let a late-inning lead slip away at Rogers Centre.

On Monday night, Jason Adam allowed a go-ahead home run to Bo Bichette, a rare misstep for the Rays’ top high-leverage reliever all season. On Tuesday night, turned Tampa Bay’s 2-1 lead into a three-run deficit with a disastrous seventh inning in a 7-2 loss to the Blue Jays in Game 2 of a day-night doubleheader.

The Rays won Game 1 on Tuesday afternoon, but losing the nightcap halted whatever momentum they may have gained in the early victory and dropped Tampa Bay (79-62) behind Toronto (80-62) in the American League Wild Card race, with two more games to play in this five-game series and 21 remaining overall.

“It hurts,” Poche said. “It was a long day. We fought really hard today, and we had a good chance to come out of here with two wins, which would be big. So it's tough to kind of give that away. But there's no time to sit around and feel sorry for ourselves.”

It was a frustrating finish for the Rays, especially considering how well they played in Game 1 and how they put themselves in position to win Game 2.

Right-hander , added to the roster as the 29th man and sent down after the game, held the Blue Jays scoreless over four-plus innings. snapped the team’s six-game homer drought with his first long ball since Aug. 26.

After Toronto tied it up in the sixth, launched his first Major League homer to left field off top starter Alek Manoah in the seventh. Aranda raised his right hand as he ran down the first-base line, celebrating a career milestone and what seemed like a huge hit at the time.

“It's an unforgettable moment,” Aranda said through interpreter Manny Navarro.

Then the Rays summoned Poche, who had been pitching as well as ever lately. The lefty had retired 15 of the past 16 batters he faced, with eight strikeouts during that stretch. His previous seven appearances were scoreless, and he owned a 1.47 ERA in 19 games since July 30.

But Poche didn’t have it Tuesday night. He immediately walked pinch-hitter Santiago Espinal on four pitches. He struck out Matt Chapman, but he let loose two wild pitches -- which allowed Espinal to advance to third without a ball being put in play -- before walking pinch-hitter Danny Jansen.

“I think it just kind of got away from him. He's been on a pretty good run for us,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Just a little uncharacteristic.”

Poche’s velocity was down, with his average fastball at 91.8 mph, 1.5 mph below his season average of 93.3. More importantly, his command was off, with only eight of his 17 pitches going for strikes. And when he found the zone, the Blue Jays were ready to strike.

With runners on the corners, pinch-hitter Whit Merrifield lined a first-pitch fastball down the left-field line for a two-run double. Up came George Springer, who clubbed an 0-1 breaking ball out to left field to punctuate the four-run frame.

“Trying to get in the zone with a slider and just kind of spun it, kind of a cement mixer right over the middle of the plate,” Poche said. “That's what good hitters do when you make pitches like that. … I just felt a little out of sync and just kind of couldn't really find that consistent release point.”

September is no time to seek silver linings for a contending club like the Rays, but there were several to be found Tuesday, including a big one near the end of the night: Right-hander Kevin Herget finally made it to a Major League mound.

Herget had been waiting for his big league debut since being selected in the 39th round of the 2013 Draft. That anticipation only grew when he spent four days with the Rays from Aug. 19-23, though he didn't pitch. In his locker afterward were two keepsakes: his long-awaited first pitch in the Majors, and the ball from his first strikeout.

“Thinking about it in the bullpen, and all the years thinking about it, is a lot worse in your head than getting up there and doing it,” said Herget, who allowed two runs while recording the Rays’ final five outs. “I felt pretty comfortable. I didn't really feel as nervous as I guess I thought I was going to be.”