ST. PETERSBURG — The walkoff victories the previous two days provided a mask for what’s been an ongoing concern about the Rays’ recent lack of offense. At least they scored enough when it mattered to win two of three.
But Monday’s abysmal outing by starter Brendan McKay in an ugly 9-3 loss to the Mariners came with no such salve.
He lasted only two innings that left them in a 7-1 hole, put further strain on their bullpen further taxed by the injury-depleted rotation, and after the game was optioned back to Triple-A.
The loss dropped the Rays to 73-53, reducing their hold on the second AL wild card to one game over Oakland, and did nothing to liven up a quiet Trop, with an announced gathering of just 9,152, which included a couple thousand free Military Monday tickets.
“You don’t replace those guys and we’re trying to piece it together,’’ manager Kevin Cash said. “We’re asking to get a lot of pitches out of some young guys. And it’s challenging.’’
Injuries have sidelined three of the Rays top starters, Tyler Glasnow, Blake Snell and Yonny Chirinos, at least into September.
Charlie Morton, their lone fulltime starter, is doing everything he can, especially for a 35-year-old headed for the heaviest workload of his career. Ryan Yarbrough has stepped out from pitching behind an opener impressively to become a dependable No. 2.
But somebody has to pitch the other days, and right now that’s a major problem.
And one without any easy answers, as about the most solid option the Rays have at Triple-A would seem to be Austin Pruitt, who will be back soon. Or maybe Jose De Leon. So you kind of get the point.
“Options are limited,’’ Cash said. “We’ve kind of gone through a fairly depleted rotation, starting staff.’’
McKay, the 2017 first-round pick with the unique two-way skills, seemed like he was ready to step in as he zoomed through Double- and Triple-A earlier this season and made that dazzling June 29 debut against the Rangers.
He had an okay outing against the Yankees after that, then a pretty good one against the Orioles. But it’s been a struggle since then, and with Monday’s outing being his worst, raising the question if it will be a losing battle this season.
“You’d like to see gradual improvement, let’s make some strides here and there,’’ Cash said. “Certainly the last two outings, a little bit of a rut. You know that that happens.’’
McKay doesn’t have overpowering stuff, so he succeeds by throwing the ball precisely where he wants it.
In his first six starts, he faced 125 batters over 29 2/3 innings and walked three.
The first fissures surfaced Tuesday in San Diego, when he walked three of the first six Padres, and six for afternoon, which lasted only four innings. He didn’t make much of it, saying he just didn’t have his usual command.
But McKay got off to another rough start Monday against the Mariners. He got one quick out, then lost an 11-pitch battle to walk J.P. Crawford, then immediately fell behind Aaron Nola and walked him as well. An out later he lost an 0-2 advantage to Tom Murphy and gave up a three-run home run on a 2-2 94 mph fastball.
The second inning wasn’t much better as he gave up four more runs, with another walk, and to somewhat free-swinging Keon Broxton at that, factoring in.
Some accompanying sloppiness by the Rays defense, including errors on Willy Adames (throwing) and Eric Sogard (catching) at least made the runs unearned so they didn’t further inflate McKay’s stats.
“I think I threw it fairly where I wanted to,’’ McKay said. “They laid off a lot of good pitches, and some calls here and there were pretty tough. But they made pretty good swings on some of the tough pitches, too, which is tough. And how it goes.’’
Still, in his last five starts, he is 1-3 with an 8.67 ERA, having allowed 31 hits and 11 walks in 19 2/3 innings.
For a guy who hasn’t really ever struggled like this, it’s a difficult situation.
“It’s different,’’ he said. “It weighs on you as a person. You don’t like to do it. And you don’t like to see it for your teammates having to put a lot of work in to have to help pick you up.’’
By sending McKay down, the Rays will hope he can regather his form and straighten out his mechanics. Pruitt will join the rotation later this week, with reliever Hoby Milner being added to the roster to add an arm to the bullpen Tuesday.
What else do the Rays have?
Jalen Beeks, who is slated for the bulk of the innings on Tuesday, hasn’t been very good much of the season, and even worse since returning from a stint in Triple-A around the All-Star break. In six games (three starts) since, he is 0-3 with a 7.61 ERA, allowing 45 baserunners in 23 2/3 innings, with a .327 opponents average and .963 OPS. After he went five so-so innings in San Diego on Wednesday, Cash said they “certainly need him to press the gas pedal a little bit for us here going forward.’’
And Trevor Richards wasn’t exactly impressive in his Rays debut on Sunday, called up after being acquired July 31 from the Marlins, who had moved him to the bullpen, and then sent to Durham for a couple outings to get stretched back.
Richards worked 3 1/3 innings, and throwing 71 pitches to get there, allowing eight hits and a walk, though with six strikeouts. He is a fastball/changeup pitcher who also need to be sharp to be successful.
And the bullpen depth they have cover for the short outings is again going to be taxed as they had to use five relievers, Jose Alvarado, Chaz Roe, Oliver Drake (two innings), Nick Anderson and Diego Castillo, plus secret weapon infielder Mike Brosseau in the ninth.
"Appreciate their efforts,'' Cash said.
Contact Marc Topkin at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays