Littell's atypical start sinks Rays in series opener

June 15th, 2024

ATLANTA -- The Rays’ series opener against the Braves was a struggle from the get-go.

Atlanta knocked Tampa Bay starting pitcher out of the game after just two innings as the right-hander allowed seven runs (six earned) on eight hits and one walk in the club’s 7-3 loss on Friday night at Truist Park.

The Rays (33-37) have lost six of their past eight games and have been outscored 40-21 in that stretch.

The Braves (37-30) tallied 12 hits, six of which were extra-base knocks (four doubles and two home runs). Six of their hits -- including three of the doubles and one of the homers -- came in the first inning.

“[The Braves] are really good hitters, but I think [Littell] left some balls over the middle of the plate and they made us pay [and] capitalized off them,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “The best thing I heard [pitching coach] Kyle [Snyder] say to him was, ‘Let’s get on another run.’ You had that clunker. Taj [Bradley] had it a couple of starts ago. [Littell] has been so good for us. I know he’ll be extremely motivated to get back out there and continue doing his thing.”

Prior to Friday’s outing, Littell’s shortest start of the year was on April 10, when he tossed 4 1/3 innings on 99 pitches in a 4-2 win over the Angels, allowing one run on six hits and three walks. Littell has gone at least five innings in every game he’s started this season except those two outings.

The six earned runs were also a season high for Littell. His previous season high was five earned in an April 22 loss to the Tigers. Littell’s ERA rose from 3.63 to 4.24.

“I just didn’t execute,” Littell said. “It was a bad night. I threw pitches in bad spots. I kind of went away from what I was doing well.”

The first five Braves hitters Littell faced recorded a base hit. It went like this: Michael Harris II singled, Ozzie Albies doubled, Marcell Ozuna hit a three-run home run, Matt Olson doubled and Austin Riley drove in Olson with an RBI double to give the Braves a 4-1 lead. Atlanta added another run when Riley scored on a Littell throwing error.

The Braves added two more runs off Littell in the bottom of the second when Riley, who went 3-for-4 and was a triple away from the cycle, blistered a Statcast-projected 422-foot two-run homer.

“It’s something that I have seen all year,” Littell said. “The longer I’ve been in the rotation, the scouting report gets out. I’m going to be in the zone. As far as this lineup doing it, it’s not unexpected. They have a lot of aggressive hitters and a lot of guys that are good hitters. To go out there and throw the ball the way I did, it wasn’t gonna fly. … I don’t feel like I need to change anything. It comes down to execution.”

Tampa Bay’s bullpen was taxed by Littell’s short outing. Four relievers covered the final six innings of the contest, allowing four hits, no walks and no runs while striking out six.

“[I was] very encouraged,” Cash said. “That was probably the bright spot there, the way they performed. They got us through the game. It’s good for those guys to put up zeros against an offense that came out pretty hot.”

Three of the Rays’ four relievers went an inning-plus on Friday, and Cash isn’t worried about a taxed bullpen for Saturday’s late-afternoon contest.

“We’ll be OK because of the work of [Kevin] Kelly and Phil [Maton]; [Chris Devenski] had a big two innings for us, and then [Jason Adam],” Cash said. “A lot of those guys might be available [Saturday], but the guys that didn’t certainly can add on. With [Shawn] Armstrong being multiple-inning available, we should be in an OK spot.”

Chris Sale (9-2) was lights-out as the starter for Atlanta. He went seven innings and allowed two earned runs on five hits, two walks and a hit-by-pitch with seven strikeouts.

Similar to the Braves, the first three Rays hitters reached base in the top of the first. Yandy Díaz singled, Randy Arozarena was hit by a pitch and Amed Rosario stroked an RBI double that gave Tampa Bay an early 1-0 lead. With runners on second and third and no outs, Sale retired the next three batters in a row to prevent a crooked number.

“You’d like, in that situation, to somehow get more than one across,” Cash said. “Once we got one in with second and third and no outs, [Sale] got pretty nasty pretty quick. He’s been on a good run. He’s a really good pitcher.”