You probably knew that the Tampa Bay Rays are the AL’s best team, and the Orioles are the worst. But did you also know that the Orioles have the league’s best team average and OBP against left-handed pitching, and that the Rays are terrible at hitting left-handers?
Tonight’s loss was one that the Birds had a chance of avoiding. Or maybe it was totally predictable. In the end, the Birds pitched OK, but got very little going against Rays lefty Ryan Yarbrough, while a Tampa Bay hitter with a .302 OPS against lefties—yes, that’s OPS—struck the game’s biggest blow against Orioles starter Keegan Akin with a two-run dinger in the fourth. It was kind of stupid.
Ryan Yarbrough is that type of crafty lefty who doesn’t throw hard but has a nice curveball, so he draws a lot of silly swings. With six strikeouts in six innings, he drew several very silly swings from the likes of Cedric Mullins, who’d hit a cool .536 with a 1.642 OPS in the month of June; from the free-swinging Ryan Mountcastle, .414 with a 1.261 OPS in June, but 0-for-3 tonight; and from Maikel Franco, who’s had a few multi-hit games recently but also whiffs a lot, to be honest.
The only damage the Birds did do against Yarbrough came in the third, just as announcers Jim Palmer and Kevin Brown were starting to get hungry, apparently. (Did you know Chick Fil-A sauces are the new Bitcoin? Buy ‘em all. Or that boudin balls are pronounced boo-DAN? Or that Madonna once sat behind Jim Palmer at Joe’s Stone Crab in Miami? And apparently wears black veils even while going out to dinner?) Anyway, there were even more exciting things going on on the field, if you can believe it. Pat Valaika got aboard on an error as Yarbrough failed to cover the bag. Then with two outs, Trey Mancini golfed a low changeup—or did he snorkel it?—just over the fence in left field. Them’s two runs, people! Orioles 2, Rays 0.
The Rays, who’d been plaguing Akin all game, answered back with a run in the bottom of the third. Catcher Mike Zunino led off with a drive that sounded like a home run off the bat, but instead it hit the wall. Austin Hays barehanded it on the ricochet, spun around and fired it to second before Zunino had barely rounded first. Welcome back, Austin Hays! It was an incredible play. Also the deepest single I think I’ve ever seen.
A slow rolling single and a wild pitch later, and there were runners on the corners with no one out. Rays’ leadoff man Manuel Margot saw 10 pitches before hitting a fielder’s choice groundout that drove in a run. Orioles 2, Rays 1. Yandy Díaz saw seven more pitches before flying out. There are no easy at-bats against the Rays, apparently. Austin Meadows popped out to Franco in foul territory to end the inning. Apparently there are also no easy pop flies in Tropicana Field, because it is a weird, greige, segmented dome. Poor Pat Valaika struggled mightily with a few tonight, but at least he didn’t drop any.
In the fourth, Akin surrendered the difference-making runs in the most Oriole way possible. The dangerous Arozarena singled to lead off and moved to third when Mike Brosseau dumped the 10th pitch he saw into left field. But Brosseau, having obviously failed to read his scouting report on the Orioles outfielders, got greedy and ran straight into the Austin Hays buzzsaw, who threw him out at second. Welcome back, Austin Hays!
Too bad the assist was wasted. Remember when John Means game up a home run to Billy Hamilton, a guy who’d hit all of two home runs in his last two seasons? This was almost as bad. Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe is a lefty who cannot hit lefties. His average against them is .063 and his OPS is a laughable .302. Lowe was also 4-for-his-last-64. So of course, with a two-strike advantage, Akin gifted him a fastball right down the chute, which Lowe drove into the stands to put the Rays up 3-2. It really didn’t have to be. Jim Palmer insisted that Severino hadn’t helped by setting up towards the middle. Whoever’s fault it was, it was a really stupid pitch from a guy who’d been commanding his stuff the last few innings.
After Akin’s decent-but-abbreviated outing ended after four innings, a huge bright spot tonight was Tyler Wells, who entered in the fifth for just one of those high-leverage spots manager Brandon Hyde has been talking about giving him lately. The big righty looked as sharp as we’ve seen him. He drew a weak groundout from the first batter with a gutsy 3-2 changeup. He embarrassed the second with a 96-mph fastball down and under the hands. The third hitter, Austin Meadows, scorched a first-pitch fastball foul, so Wells adjusted: he fed Meadows a changeup that fooled him. Inning-ending pop foul—easy! Except there are no easy pop fouls in the Trop. Maikel Franco, looking like Cedric Mullins out there, covered tons of ground to snag the ball on a sprint, getting high fives from the Orioles bullpen, seated in foul ground, as he circled by.
Wells got into a little trouble in the sixth, allowing two consecutive singles with one out. But in some ways, that mini-rally just made what he did next even more impressive. Wells struck out the next hitter with a 96-mph fastball painted on the corner. Then he threw four straight sliders to Zunino, who waved at them helplessly.
Unfortunately, the Orioles can’t have John Means start every game or Tyler Wells pitch every inning in relief. Cole Sulser relieved Wells in the seventh, and quickly gave up a run when the speedy Kevin Kiermaier turned a shift-beating roller into a double and Manuel Margot singled him in. Rays 4, Orioles 2. It was fairly unlucky, but it also didn’t make much difference. Otherwise, Sulser pitched a nice eighth inning, and Paul Fry pitched a fine ninth.
What little noise the Orioles made against the Rays’ bullpen—two walks with two outs in the eighth against changeup specialist J.P. Feyereisen, recently picked up in the trade that sent Willy Adames to Milwaukee—was squished by a first-pitch pop-out by Anthony Santander.
Them’s the breaks. Truthfully, the pitching could have been way worse, the way it was the last time the Orioles played the Rays. Guess that’s something to applaud. Tomorrow, Jorge López gets the chance to do better, as he and Rich Hill take the mound in Game Two.