CHICAGO -- The Rays got what they wanted in the sixth inning Friday night at Guaranteed Rate Field. They finally forced out White Sox starter Dylan Cease, who ripped through their lineup for 5 2/3 innings. They got into Chicago’s bullpen and finally got on the board, making it a one-run game on back-to-back RBI doubles by Ji-Man Choi and Yandy Díaz, with lefty-killing Mike Zunino stepping to the plate as a pinch-hitter against southpaw Aaron Bummer.
Zunino drove a full-count slider out to center field, giving the Rays another glimmer of hope, but it carried just far enough for center fielder Luis Robert to get to it. Tampa Bay only managed one more hit the rest of the night, falling short in a 3-2 loss.
“That's kind of the way baseball goes,” Díaz said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “We were hoping to get more runs, but we weren't able to.”
That’s been somewhat of a theme for the Rays as they’ve lost four of their last five games, falling to 4-4 on the season. As good as their at-bats were during their season-opening sweep of the Orioles, they’ve been searching for runs since then. The Rays have managed three runs or fewer in four of the last five games, with their 9-8, extra-inning victory against the A’s on Tuesday standing as the outlier, while striking out 55 times in those five games.
At this point of the season, all the small-sample-size caveats apply. They’ve played eight games. They’re coming off an abbreviated Spring Training. Nobody on the team has more at-bats than Wander Franco's 33, and more than half their hitters have fewer than 20 at-bats. It’s far too early to make any definitive declarations.
So, what’s happening? Manager Kevin Cash offered an easily understandable explanation.
“Good pitching, and we’re just not locked in right now,” Cash said. “We’ve got one or two guys -- namely Wander and Ji-Man, and then outside of that we’ve got guys that are still trying to get in their comfort zone.”
Franco and Choi looked locked in again during Friday’s series opener against the White Sox. Franco put together his fifth multi-hit game -- yes, already -- with two of the Rays’ three hits off Cease, who struck out eight and walked two on the night. Choi walked and doubled, improving to 10-for-19 with two homers and more walks (six) than strikeouts (five) on the year.
“I feel very focused right now, and thankfully I feel really good,” Franco said through Navarro.
“[Hitting coach Chad Mottola] always raves about Ji-Man having good at-bats,” Cash said of Choi. “Now, he's having good at-bats and doing damage with it. It feels like he's (seeing) six, seven pitches every single at-bat. He's laying off close pitches, getting himself good pitches to hit.”
As for the rest? Brandon Lowe has hit three homers as part of an encouraging start, and Manuel Margot is 7-for-22. Francisco Mejía delivered clutch hits in the Rays’ first two wins, although he had three strikeouts at the plate along with a passed ball and two wild pitches (one of which scored a run) behind the dish on Friday night. Everyone else still seems to be finding their footing.
But there’s little doubt that will happen eventually. The Rays got off to a pretty slow start last year, too, batting just .217/.298/.361 with a 19-19 record through their first 38 games. All they wound up doing was winning 100 games while boasting the Majors’ second-highest-scoring offense, and virtually the entire lineup is back this season.
“We just have to stay positive. We're working out on the field. We're working out in the cage,” Díaz said. “And I think just one of these days, the bats are going to come alive.”
Friday was a tough night for anyone to heat up, however, and not just because of the 47-degree temperature at first pitch. Cease had a four-pitch mix working in his favor, with a fastball he ran up to 97.8 mph, two tough breaking balls and a changeup he mixed in to keep the Rays off-balance. He forced Tampa Bay to swing and miss on 15 of his 91 pitches.
“He's got good stuff. You understand from the side why he strikes so many people out,” Cash said. “He just threw a good ballgame for them.”
The same could be said for Rays right-hander Drew Rasmussen, who gave up three runs on five hits without a walk over five innings -- Tampa Bay’s first five-inning start of the season, and an efficient one at that on 68 pitches. Jake Burger did most of the damage against Rasmussen, jumping on a first-pitch fastball for a third-inning homer then turning a well-located slider into an RBI single in the fifth.
The Rays had their chance to take Rasmussen off the hook against Bummer, but he escaped before Kendall Graveman and Liam Hendriks slammed the door with two perfect innings.
“All good teams have certain downtimes at times,” Franco said. “As long as we keep on going, I think we're going to continue to be OK.”