McClanahan deals, but offensive struggles persist in opener

October 8th, 2022

CLEVELAND -- The Rays took plenty of setbacks in stride this season. Frustrating losses. A tough division. An often overwhelming number of injuries. Through it all, they found a way to get back into the postseason.

If they want to stick around, they’ll have to overcome a dominant Guardians pitching staff and a lineup that seems to have gone ice cold at the wrong time.

Despite an ace-like performance by starter Shane McClanahan, the Rays’ season is on the brink after a 2-1 loss in Game 1 of the American League Wild Card Series on Friday afternoon at Progressive Field. The glaring lack of offense that defined the final days of Tampa Bay’s regular season followed the club into the postseason.

“Sometimes the bats just don’t want to hit, but we all go through these bad times,” Rays leadoff hitter Yandy Díaz said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “We just need to keep a positive mind.”

The Rays ended the season on a five-game losing streak, scoring three runs or fewer in each game. They scored one run or fewer in 12 of their final 33 regular-season games. They believed their lineup would bounce back from that tough stretch, but Guardians starter Shane Bieber and closer Emmanuel Clase had other plans.

Everyone in Tampa Bay’s clubhouse credited Bieber for his performance, noting he had great command of the trio of breaking balls he threw down and away to baffle right-handed hitters. The Rays’ attempts to take Bieber deep led to one solo shot by Jose Siri, but also led to 18 swinging strikes during Bieber’s 7 2/3-inning start.

“It seemed like they were trying to take a couple swings to maybe duplicate that, double or triple that,” Bieber said. “If you're going to give up a homer, it's the age-old adage, right? To hopefully make it a solo [home run]. That's where I found myself today.”

Meanwhile, the Rays find themselves needing some hits -- fast -- because losing the opener set up a win-or-go-home Game 2. They have plenty of reason to believe in Tyler Glasnow as he takes the mound on Saturday, but they saw Friday that even a great start won’t be enough.

“Everything's the same. Try to just focus on making good contact and just staying confident at the plate,” Siri said through Navarro. “Just not let your teammates put their heads down. We still have two more games to go.”

MLB has only a limited history of three-game playoff series, but the expanded postseason in 2020 did produce eight Wild Card Series that were best-of-three. Six of the eight teams that won Game 1 in those series advanced. All six of those were two-game sweeps. However, the two teams that evened things up in Game 2 (A’s vs. White Sox, Padres vs. Cardinals) then won Game 3 as well.

If you add in four previous best-of-three tiebreaker series that decided NL pennants between 1946-62, then the Game 1 winner improves to 10-2 all-time in that format.

“We need to be resilient,” manager Kevin Cash said. “I'm very confident in this group, that they will respond the way they need to and compete and give us a good opportunity to win.”

Everyone expected a series of tight, low-scoring games between a pair of teams known more for their pitching prowess than their power at the plate. And Friday was a return to All-Star form by McClanahan, who created some questions heading into the postseason after recording a 4.20 ERA in the second half and dealing with a left shoulder injury down the stretch.

McClanahan left his second-half struggles behind him, allowing two runs (both on a sixth-inning José Ramírez homer) as he cruised through seven innings on only 85 pitches.

“I thought we saw just two really great pitching performances,” Cash said. “I'm really proud of our Shane, and their Shane was pretty special.”

No-hit through four innings before Harold Ramírez led off the fifth with a single to center, the Rays scratched together only three hits and one walk while striking out nine times in their postseason opener. Thus, McClanahan couldn’t afford to make any mistakes.

He made one against the wrong hitter.

McClanahan allowed 19 home runs this season, with only one coming off the dominant changeup he tweaked this spring to round out his four-pitch mix. But he left one up in the zone in Game 1, just enough for José Ramírez to send it out to right-center field.

“Besides that one pitch, I feel like I did a good job today minimizing the damage,” McClanahan said. “I felt like I did a really good job today of attacking the zone and trusting my stuff. … That pitch is going to kill me for a little bit.”