The Tampa Bay Rays have played a franchise record 11 straight games decided by 2-runs or less. They are 4-7 in those games and have played in 29 one run games and are 15-14 in those contests.
Playing close games will require a good amount of good fortune or put another way, luck. Unfortunately, luck does run out and banking on fortunate bounces to win baseball games is a recipe for missing the postseason altogether.
Yesterday, the Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates 5-4 in walk-off fashion, it was their second straight walk-off victory over Pittsburgh in as many nights. A lot of smiles in the Rays lockeroom on Saturday, but the inability to put teams away has to be a source of frustration for Kevin Cash and the coaching staff….not to mention a strain on the nerves of the fans watching.
Winning close games in walk-off fashion can relieve pressure on a team and can also erase some of the frustration that can dog a team in long stretches.
The 2022 season reminds me of the 2017 season when the Rays turned to Jake McGee, Kevin Jepsen, and Brad Boxberger seemingly on a nightly bases to protect 1-2 run leads. The Rays did not make the postseason in 2017 finishing with a record of 80-82. That team finished the year playing in 45 1-run contest and posted a 21-24 record in such games.
More than 2017, the series of recent games in 2022 takes me back to the 2013 season. One night in Texas in particular, April 8, 2013, seemed to set the stage for a mounting frustration that carried over a few weeks later. It should be noted that the 2013 Rays finished with a 92-71 record and had 47 1-run games finishing 26-21 in those games.
Blown Call Ends Game, Nathan Gets 300th Save:
To set the stage we need to go back to April 8th of the 2013 season
The Rays trailed the Texas Rangers 3-2 in the top of the ninth. Sean Rodriguez was at first base after delivering a RBI single to cut the lead to just one run. Ben Zobrist was at-bat and had worked the count full. Lurking on deck was Evan Longoria, best case scenario for the Rays offense.
Rangers closer Joe Nathan, already at 23 pitches, delivered the 3-2 pitch that darted outside the zone but umpire Marty Foster raised his right arm and called Zobrist out on strikes. It was an auspicious way for Nathan to earn his 300th save.
Simply put, it was an awful call. How awful?
You can see Nathan mouth the word “wow” after the call. In an interview with MLB Network Nathan said “”I think I might have been the last guy on the field to realize the game was over.”
Joe Maddon was upset after the game saying about the call “it just can’t happen in a Major League Baseball game.”
To his credit, Marty Foster himself admitted the mistake saying “I saw the pitch and of course don’t have the chance to do it again, but had I had a chance to do it again, I wouldn’t call that pitch a strike.”
Zobrist did his job, Drew the walk, and gave Longoria the chance…all meaningless due to an awful call.
Same Situation At Home Against Padres:
The Texas game was one frustrating loss in what had become a very disappointing start for the playoff hopeful Rays. They entered the game 17-18 and were scuffling to find their rhythm. Fast forward a few weeks and Tampa Bay is again mounting a rally in the 9th. This time they are at home against the San Diego Padres.
The backdrop to this game was that Tampa Bay had built a 6-2 lead only to see the lead change hands in the 7th inning as San Diego scored five times
Padres closer Huston Street was on the mound trying to preserve a 7-6 lead. Ben Zobrist is again at the plate with Evan Longoria on deck – and once again Zobrist works the count full and takes the pitch – this time for ball four.
Longoria sends everyone home happy lining a 2-1 pitch over the fence in left-center field giving Tampa Bay the 8-7 victory.
After the game a joyful Longoria said, “You need games like this, whether it’s myself or anybody coming through in the clutch, to kind of boost morale and jump-start everything,”
Better To Be Good Than Lucky:
Rays Manager Joe Maddon was not thrilled with the way the game unfolded and was uncharacteristically dour after the game.
He had taken issue with the fact that his team had given up a 6-2 lead allowing San Diego to score 5 runs in the 7th inning. The rally started with a lead off walk by Jeremy Hellickson which later scored on a grand slam by Jesus Guzman.
“To be able to come back it’s outstanding, it’s wonderful, it’s part of the game, but I’d rather be good than lucky.” Maddon said.
Maddon acknowledged that those type of comebacks aren’t going to happen that often. That is the anomaly he noted saying they were fortunate to have Longoria up in that situation.
Maddon then reiterated what had bothered him..and that is you can’t play a game like the Rays had played and expect to play in October.
“You can’t go to the dance playing like that. When you get leads, you’ve got to put the other team away.” He said. “I’m not happy with that. That’s inappropriate. That’s got to stop.”
To play in October your not going to be lucky, you have to be good.
2022 Rays Need To Be Good, Not Lucky:
Fast forward to 2022. Tampa Bay desires to play in October but winning games like Saturday in walk-off fashion will be the anomaly.
Tampa Bay has won the last two games in walk-off fashion and the other common thread is allowing leads to evaporate.
Friday night Tampa Bay had a 3-0 lead over Pittsburgh after the first inning but were unable to add on to the lead.
By the fifth inning, Pittsburgh had battled back on a trio of solo homers to tie it. It wasn’t until the Rays scored the game winnning run int eh bottom of the 10th that they were able to score again.
Saturday afternoon Tampa Bay built leads of 2-0 and 3-2 only to see Pittsburgh tie it at 2-2 and then take a 5-3 lead on a 3-run homer off the bat of Jack Suwinski in the 6th inning.
At least the Rays were able to slice into the lead when Isaac Paredes homered in the 8th cutting the lead to 5-4. Pirates closer David Bednar was brought on to protect the slim lead. Although lacking his command he was able to retire Josh Lowe and Randy Arozarena for the first two outs.
Then the Rays offense went to work and battled. Ji-man Choi and Vidal Brujan drew back to back walks bringing pinch-hitter Jonathan Aranda in to pinch hit for Luke Raley. Aranda sent a grounder back toward the mound that deflected off Bednar’s glove, by the time he retrieved the ball he felt he didn’t have a chance to nab Aranda at 1st and the bases were loaded for Paredes.
Paredes came through in the clutch and delivered the walk-off opposite field single to give Tampa Bay the win, but these type of games can’t continue if Tampa Bay wants to play in October.
Clean Up The Self Inflicted Wounds:
The Rays have to do clean up their game starting with protecting those valuable outs and doing a better job on the bases. Randy Arozarena, a common name when the topic of poor baserunning comes up, delivered a RBI double scoring Josh Lowe to give the Rays a 3-2 lead. Unfortunately, with Ji-Man Choi at the plate, he got picked off second base. Of course, Ji-man Choi followed the pickoff with what would have been an RBI single and who knows how the rest of the inning would have unfolded.
Tampa Bay has made 33 outs on the bases this season, according to baseball reference. The most in the majors and four ahead of the Chicago Cubs who have made 29 outs on the bases. This number doesn’t include pickoffs, caught stealing, or force plays. The outs on the bases compound with the pickoffs and caught stealing are a big reason is only scoring 4.06 runs per game a 1.23 runs per game decrease from 2021. How much of the disturbance in the offense is due to the mishaps on the base paths versus how much is due to the injuries to Brandon Lowe, Wander Franco, and others? Of course, the injury factor is a huge variable, but what percentage is self inflicted wounds created by careless work on the bases?
The Rays also need to clean up their glove work. They have allowed 46 unearned runs in 2022, the second most in the majors. It’s their most unearned runs b3fore the All-Star break since 2005 (also 46). The 46 unearned runs this year is 79.3-percent of the total unearned runs allowed in 2021 (58).
Leads can not continue to evaporate – whether it’s the lack or adding insurance runs on or whether it’s the bullpen locking it down, the Rays must learn to put teams away.
Yes, the Rays are best up especially in the bullpen and offense, but they are a talented group that can play better than they are showing.
They need to be good, not lucky like today.