ST. PETERSBURG — The frustration Brandon Lowe was feeling this early in the season was already obvious, amplified by the lack of fans to drown out what he said disgustedly after striking out at key points in each of the Rays’ first two games.
“It’s hard to keep that held in at some times,” Lowe said.
By late Saturday afternoon, that frustration was replaced by satisfaction.
Lowe delivered the big hit the Rays had been seeking over the first two days, a two-run triple in the eighth inning that led to a 4-1 win over the Blue Jays.
Starter Ryan Yarbrough put the Rays in position to win, scattering four hits over five-plus scoreless innings and getting out of the one mess he created. Relievers Chaz Roe, Nick Anderson and Oliver Drake did the rest, making up for a tying homer that Pete Fairbanks allowed in the seventh.
“Just an overall good win,” manager Kevin Cash said. “We were disappointed (Friday) with it being opening day and not being able to find a way to win. (Saturday) we bounced back and did some good things. The bats were quiet for a little while, but our pitching was spectacular, and then the offense came through when we needed them.”
As the Rays did their usual off-tooling of the lineup this offseason, they felt they ended up with a deeper and more productive group of hitters between what they added and what they had, especially with Lowe and Yandy Diaz healthy.
Going 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position in Friday’s opening-day disappointment at the Trop and hitless in their first four chances Saturday wasn’t a good start.
“There’s a lot of options,” Cash said. “The length of whatever nine we choose, we’ve got a bunch of good hitters.”
Lowe showed that in attacking a changeup from Jays reliever Sam Gaviglio.
In his All-Star worthy first half of 2019, before being sidelined with a leg injury, Lowe quickly established himself as being able to hit a fastball. Any fastball.
With the level of analytics, data-gathering and scouting, everyone knows that, so Lowe is going to see more off-speed pitches until he shows he can handle them.
“We all recognize that he’s proven to the league in a really short amount of time that he can hit a fastball,” Cash said. “He’s probably going to have to make some adjustments now this go-round this season and be able to handle some off-speed pitches in the zone. We don’t want him to expand or be somebody different, and today he did — it looked like he got a changeup just enough up that he was able to put it in a gap for a triple. Really, really big at-bat.”
Lowe said he knows he has a lot of work to do, planning not just more swings in the batting cage against off-speed pitches but drills to get his eyes and body better at adapting to the changes in timing.
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“It’s a game of adjustments,” Lowe said. “At some point they’re going to come back with fastballs if I start hitting the off-speed, so you’ve just got to keep adjusting to what you’re being thrown. Obviously right now it’s a heavier dose of off-speed, so I have to adjust to that.”
Yarbrough makes adjustments on the mound, and his mix of pitches, locations and speeds makes him befuddling to hitters at times. Though he needed 21 pitches to navigate a messy fourth inning in which the Jays loaded the bases, he had some quick efficient innings, throwing seven pitches in the second and nine in the fifth.
“When he’s on and he’s got a feel for the cutter, he gets really nasty,” Cash said. “He might not create the most swing and miss, but you look at some of the hitters and the weak contact that he creates, I mean, some of those cutters from the side, I understand why hitters come out of the batter’s box saying it looks like 100 mph. … And it’s not really a surprise pitch. I think most teams know that he’s gonna go to that quite a bit, and that just shows how effective it is.”
The Rays took a 1-0 lead in the sixth when Ji-Man Choi, batting in the leadoff spot, doubled in pinch-runner Mike Brosseau. After Fairbanks gave up a one-out homer in the seventh to Deck McGuire, Anderson kept it from getting worse, and the Rays rallied again.
Mike Zunino singled with one out in the eighth, and Choi had another good at-bat, drawing a walk. “He made us all look smart today by just the quality of his at-bats,” Cash said. “It’s just typical of him. … A really good professional hitter.”
That brought up Lowe, who had been 0-for-9 previously against Gaviglio. Lowe took a strike, then he lashed out at the changeup. He didn’t say anything that sounded like the word duck this time.
“Striking out in general is pretty frustrating,” he said. “Sometimes frustration comes out, the competitiveness in the moment.”