Sunday, June 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Archer K's 12, but Rays lose opener to Blue Jays

ST. PETERSBURG

The Rays' prep for Sunday's season opener seemed to drip with the usual optimism, Evan Longoria leading the chorus by proclaiming this was "the best team from top to bottom" they'd had in his nine seasons, "as good as any playoff team I've ever played on here."

An hour or so later, principal owner Stu Sternberg stood on the field and made a more interesting assessment, explaining that his confidence was somewhat ebbed "because there is a wider range of outcomes" than before.

"We have thought in all of those years, including 2008 (when they went to the World Series), that we were an 80-something to 90-something win team," Sternberg said. "I don't know (this year). We could win 72, we could win 97 games."

By the end of the day, after the Rays dropped the opener to the Blue Jays 5-3 before a sellout crowd of 31,042 at the Trop, you could see exactly what he was talking about.

There were definitely some signs of promise.

Chris Archer righted himself after a shaky 34-pitch first inning to strike out 12 over five, and Rays pitchers fanned 16 overall. Longoria rapped a couple of hits. Corey Dickerson showed the big bat he was brought in for with a homer. The Rays rallied from a 5-1 ninth-inning deficit to get the tying run to the plate.

But there were also some reasons for concern.

Archer's inability to command his fastball put them in a 2-0 first-inning hole. On the day the Rays officially released slick-fielding James Loney, new first baseman Logan Morrison misplayed a couple of balls and missed on making another play. Kevin Kiermaier made an admittedly "embarrassing" baserunning blunder and got thrown out at third to end the fourth. Groundball specialist Ryan Webb gave up a two-run homer. And there already was talk about the need to maintain their aggressive offensive approach after being shut down into the ninth by Toronto ace Marcus Stroman.

"You want to get out of the gate to a good start," Kiermaier said. "But just Game 1. No need to hold our heads or anything by any means. … Just didn't happen today."

Archer, their All-Star ace, was not very good in the first inning, allowing two runs on two singles, two walks and a wild pitch and throwing 34 pitches. He was pretty darn good in the four innings after, allowing three hits and an unearned run — after Morrison botched a line drive — though throwing 73 more for a total of 107.

"Overall I wish I could have done a better job in the first inning," Archer said. "It probably could have helped us out later."

Longoria's third-inning single got the Rays within 2-1, but they got nothing else off Stroman until the ninth.

Manager Kevin Cash praised the 24-year-old's work. That sentiment echoed through the quiet clubhouse after the game, but the Rays were somewhat complicit in their own demise.

Seven times they made an out on Stroman's first pitch of an at-bat. They saw four total in the fourth inning, seven in the seventh and never more than 18 in any frame. He threw first-pitch strikes to 27 of the 32 Rays he faced.

"I like the way we stayed with an aggressive approach," Cash said. "You're going to run into that sometimes, where you have some late life like Stroman had, and the pitch count's not going to be high. We don't care about pitch count. It's more or less, if you think you can handle it, swing at it. So they maintained that. It was good to see."

Morrison, one of the five new hitters brought in and asked to buy into the aggressive approach adopted last July, didn't sound as sure after his 0-for-4.

"Pretty good pitcher, he doesn't give you much to hit," he said. "I think we needed to be a little more patient, myself especially be a little more patient, try to try to find something up in the zone."

The day had the usual festive undertones, even more so with commissioner Rob Manfred on hand. Several players, including Archer, noted the enthusiasm and energy provided by the crowd, which will be considerably smaller tonight.

And Sternberg's assessment may have been the biggest takeaway.

"If we have our guys stay healthy and perform up to their capabilities, I believe we'll take the division," he said. "And if we have some underperformers, the rest of the league is so good, you could become a 72-win team in a heartbeat."

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