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  1. Rays

Bullpen day: a success. Rays offense: a mess.

The Rays pitchers come through on the first day of the experiment but don't get enough help.
Andrew Kittredge, the Rays’ starter on their bullpen day, gives up a solo homer to Xander Bogaerts but otherwise pitches effectively into the fourth. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]
Andrew Kittredge, the Rays’ starter on their bullpen day, gives up a solo homer to Xander Bogaerts but otherwise pitches effectively into the fourth. [CHRIS URSO | Times]
Published Apr. 1, 2018
Updated Apr. 1, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — There was no curse in wearing the old-school Devil Rays jerseys like in the mess of their last legit throwback day in 2009, as Saturday they properly celebrated the 20th anniversary of the first game in franchise history with 28 players from the inaugural team on hand.

And there were no curses about the new-wave pitching plan they employed, using multiple multi-inning relievers rather than a traditional starter in what adds "bullpen day" and "beginning pitcher" to the nomenclature as they seek to make the best use of the arms on hand.

No, what cost the Rays in Saturday's 3-2 loss to the Red Sox was really much simpler. And it's potentially more concerning if they can't do anything about it — the inability to score more runs.

That problem magnified what else they didn't do right. A bounced throw by Matt Duffy led to one Boston run. And a misread, if not a mistake, on the bases by Mallex Smith in the ninth cost them a chance to tie.

Run scoring is going to be a season challenge. Even the head Ray, principal owner Stuart Sternberg, said they're likely to be at or near the bottom.

Through the first three games, the Rays have scored six runs in one game (all in one inning Thusday) and none and two in the others. They have batted 26 times and scored in just three innings, with only 16 hits and a .176 average and .515 OPS. They have not scored a run when any of Boston's starters — Chris Sale, David Price and Saturday, Rick Porcello — have been on the mound.

"They've pitched really well," Rays manager Kevin Cash said simply. "We've seen three Cy Young(-caliber pitchers). That's challenging anytime you see that."

"It's hard to judge," Duffy said, offering more context. "If we were facing a Triple-A guy with a 90 (mph) fastball straight and a bad slider we'd probably have a discussion about it. There aren't many of those in the big leagues. You don't want to make excuses. At the same time, there's a fine line between cutting yourself some slack and looking yourself in the mirror, where maybe we're not getting the results but the at-bats are good. That's kind of what you hope for against guys like what we faced, and hang around the game long enough to do what we did the first night (rallying to win in the eighth)."

Despite the ball Duffy short-hopped to first that gave Boston a run, and after sizzling Xander Bogaerts homered off game beginner Andrew Kittredge and before J.D. Martinez and Bogaerts took advantage of back-to-back mistakes by Ryan Yarbrough in the sixth, the Rays had a chance in the ninth.

Down 3-2 and facing the overly challenging Craig Kimbrel, Smith's leadoff walk sparked hope for Rays fans in the crowd of 17,838 given his game-changing speed. But when pinch-hitter C.J. Cron hit a soft low liner to short that Bogaerts caught just off the ground, Smith got caught in between — and doubled off first.

His explanation was that there was no good option — that he needed to be able to get to second to try to break up a double play if Bogaerts dropped it, but also to get back to first if he caught it.

"Just a tough ball," he said. "I could say I just misread it."

Cash said it was more of a mistake, that Smith should have been more cautious and stayed closer to first. "Probably a tick overaggressive," he said.

As much as the "bullpen day" plan was discussed and dissected, it worked out pretty well. Kittredge and Yarbrough, in his big-league debut, teamed for what amounted to a decent start: 71/3 innings, seven hits, three runs (two earned), four walks, four strikeouts and a home run.

Kittredge, who in new Rays-speak was chosen to "begin" the game rather than "start," took them into the fourth, throwing 57 pitches. Then Yarbrough, the Lakeland-raised lefty, took over and worked into the eighth, throwing 73.

The premise of the plan — which had to be further adjusted after injury sidelined No. 3 starter Nathan Eovaldi — is to use their three remaining starters in traditional roles and the five multi-inning relievers on the fourth and — when needed, given the heavy load of early open dates — fifth days.

"I'll give a couple cycles through the bullpen day — we don't rate anything really after one go-round — but I thought the two guys, the combination of the two, threw the ball well," Cash said.

On this night, they had bigger problems.

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow TBTimes_Rays.

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