Rays' pitching continues to be plagued by the long ball

June 13th, 2024

ST. PETERSBURG -- Down by a run in the ninth inning with two runners on and Brandon Lowe stepping up to the plate to face Cubs right-hander Héctor Neris, the Rays were hoping recent history would repeat itself Wednesday night at Tropicana Field.

Tampa Bay's comeback attempt ultimately fell short. A night after launching a three-run, walk-off homer off Neris, Lowe flied out to left-center field and the Rays walked off the field with a 4-3 loss against the Cubs. They have lost four of five, seven of 11 and 14 of their past 21 games.

“It was interesting how that inning unfolded from what took place last night,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Like the way we went about it. We just came up short.”

But there was another, unfortunately familiar theme at play for the Rays throughout the night. For as well as starter pitched, and as excellent as lefty Garrett Cleavinger has been all season, home runs continue to be a problem for Tampa Bay’s pitching staff.

All the runs Tampa Bay allowed on Wednesday came on homers. The only damage Civale permitted on his 29th birthday was a Seiya Suzuki solo shot in the fourth inning, and the Cubs pulled ahead in the seventh on Cody Bellinger’s three-run blast off Cleavinger.

Just as concerning as the Rays’ ongoing struggle to hit home runs, and perhaps more unusual for a team typically built on run prevention: Tampa Bay has allowed an MLB-leading 91 homers this season.

That figure is tied with the 2016 team for the second-most homers allowed in franchise history through 68 games, trailing only the 2000 Devil Rays club that allowed 100 homers in the same span to start the season.

“We've got to continue to work to try to prevent them finding the barrel to hit it out of the ballpark. There's no doubt,” Cash said. “I think offenses are aware that we're going to be committed to the zone early in the count, but I still think that's your best chance to have success rather than pitching around or falling behind really good hitters.”

With two outs and a runner on first in the seventh, Cash summoned Cleavinger to get out of the inning. The lefty had given up a run in only three of his 29 appearances this season, and he had yet to allow a homer all year.

But he plunked pinch-hitter Patrick Wisdom with an 0-1 sweeper before getting ahead of Bellinger with a pair of cutters. After throwing a sweeper outside the zone, Cleavinger came back with another cutter down in the zone, and Bellinger blasted the game-winner a Statcast-projected 407 feet out to right-center.

“Especially with two strikes and a guy like that at the plate, I think it caught too much of the plate. Kind of changed the game for us, unfortunately,” Cleavinger said. “It's been a rough week. Some things haven't bounced our way, but hopefully we can kind of flush it and move on.”

The Rays were pleased with Civale’s performance before that, although they’ve lost each of his past seven starts and he hasn’t won a game since April 9.

Civale allowed only five hits and a walk while striking out six over 5 2/3 innings, his longest start since a six-inning outing on April 16. He stranded the bases loaded in the first inning, beginning a stretch in which he retired seven consecutive batters, including four straight on strikeouts.

“Stuff definitely was there,” said Civale, who has pitched to a 3.43 ERA over his past four starts. “First of all, the defense behind me was just incredible. It's a lot easier to pitch and just be in the zone and not shy away from contact when they're playing behind you like that, and they've been doing an awesome job of that.”

The Rays took a lead in the third inning when Taylor Walls walked, stole second and scored on an Isaac Paredes double to center off Cubs starter Javier Assad. But Chicago immediately tied the game when Suzuki launched a 2-2 curveball from Civale out to center. Civale has allowed 14 home runs this season, tied for the most in the Majors.

The Rays answered quickly, as Jose Siri hit a projected 435-foot homer to lead off the fourth. Combined with José Caballero’s solo homer in the ninth, that accounted for the Rays’ second multihomer performance in their past 25 games, although their 53 this season are still tied for second-fewest in the Majors.

And Civale escaped another jam in the fifth, striking out Bellinger with three straight cutters and a curveball to leave runners on the corners.

“He pitched outstanding for us,” Cash said, “gave us every opportunity to win the game.”