Rays fall in finale after issuing 'uncharacteristic' walks

March 31st, 2024

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays saw a little bit of everything during their season-opening series split with the Blue Jays.

They put together a pair of excellent all-around games, winning Friday and Saturday by a combined 10 runs. But the four-game set was bookended by lopsided losses, as they dropped an 8-2 decision on Opening Day and fell, 9-2, in Sunday’s sloppy series finale at Tropicana Field.

For all that went right the past two days, nothing seemed to go the Rays’ way on Sunday afternoon. Their lineup managed only three hits, including homers from Randy Arozarena and Isaac Paredes. In the field, an error and a passed ball led to two runs.

Most concerningly, their pitchers gave up 10 hits and walked nearly as many batters (eight) as they struck out (nine).

“As a staff, we just fell behind and then Toronto really capitalized. Couple [of] walks mixed in with some big hits,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “They had baserunners on, and really threatening for big innings, it felt like, throughout the course of the game. Just wasn't our day on the mound, but [I'm] confident we'll bounce right back.”

The Rays’ pitching philosophy is built on getting ahead in the count, but they issued 19 walks this series, their most through the first four games of a season since 2012 (23). They must hope that is simply early season noise, not a sign of things to come.

“I'd like to think so, that they've done such a good job for so long of controlling the zone and getting ahead, and we'll get back to that,” Cash said. “The walks have been a little uncharacteristic.”

The Rays had every reason to feel encouraged about their rotation after the first three games. Zach Eflin cruised through five innings on Thursday, only to be undone by one bad sequence in the sixth. Aaron Civale and Zack Littell, both stepping into significant roles near the top of the rotation, were both outstanding for six innings.

But the final spot in the rotation -- an opening created by starter Taj Bradley’s mid-spring right pectoral strain -- did not immediately deliver the results the Rays were hoping for.

The Rays got back to their creative ways on 's day to pitch, slotting in right-hander Shawn Armstrong as an opener in front of the lefty Alexander. Armstrong thrived in that role the past two years, allowing just one run in 19 2/3 innings over nine starts for Tampa Bay in 2022-23.

Ideally, the contrast between the right-handed Armstrong and the lefty Alexander would have made for a tough day for Toronto’s lineup. But Armstrong immediately gave up two runs (one earned) on three hits and a walk in the first inning, and Alexander gave up three big hits in his five innings of work.

The first came in the second inning. Making his Rays debut and his first regular-season appearance since a left lat strain sidelined him last July 2, Alexander retired the first two hitters he faced. But Isiah Kiner-Falefa kept the inning going with a single, then Alexander issued back-to-back walks to load the bases.

“My misses were very small. But it's the big leagues. Balls are balls,” Alexander said. “If you don't establish strikes early, they don't swing and then you find yourself behind in counts. These are big league hitters, so they hit balls hard.”

Justin Turner has been doing that for a while, and he did it to Alexander in the second inning. The veteran infielder fouled off three pitches before smacking a 2-2 cutter to left field for a two-run double.

Turner gave him more trouble in the fifth. Alexander got ahead in the count, 0-2, but his 88.4 mph fastball didn’t get as high above the zone as he wanted. Turner cranked it to left for a solo homer. He surrendered another two-strike homer later in the inning, as Davis Schneider’s two-run shot put the Blue Jays ahead, 7-1.

“There's a few fastballs in two-strike counts I'd like back. The damage hurt a lot,” Alexander said. “Overall, [my] control was average, and when I have average control, it gets a little loud.”

The game got further out of hand in the seventh. Right-hander Jacob Waguespack, who competed with Alexander for the final spot in the rotation, gave up two runs as he walked four batters in a 40-pitch frame. It was the first MLB appearance for Waguespack, one of the best stories in the Rays’ Spring Training camp, since Sept. 16, 2020.

“Just fell behind in counts. That’s not who I am. Obviously, [I'm] not pleased with it,” Waguespack said. “I wanted to go out there and do my job and eat some innings. … It just wasn’t really my day.”