Defense, bullpen make a mess in Rays’ 7-4 loss to Braves

Two of Tampa Bay's usual strengths betray it as the team squanders a two-run, sixth-inning lead.
The Atlanta Braves' Freddie Freeman (5) celebrates his two-run home run with Ronald Acuña during the third inning.
The Atlanta Braves' Freddie Freeman (5) celebrates his two-run home run with Ronald Acuña during the third inning. [ JOHN AMIS | AP ]
Published July 30, 2020|Updated July 30, 2020

The Rays knew Wednesday was going to be odd logistically.

They were traveling for the first time amid the myriad coronavirus precautions and protocols, which included making the hour-long flight to Atlanta Wednesday morning rather than the night before, wearing masks on the plane and buses, and walking into the Truist Park visiting clubhouse last used by the COVID-19-infected Marlins.

“A little bit strange,” infielder Joey Wendle said before the game on a Zoom video call from Atlanta. “But I think we were all kind of expecting that going into the travel day.”

What they couldn’t have expected were two of their strengths, their defense and bullpen, faltering badly in a 7-4 loss to the Braves, spoiling what had been a majors-best and franchise-record-tying 4-1 start.

“Those kind of games, they’re going to happen,” shortstop Willy Adames said. “We just have to try to cut it out, and don’t let it happen a lot because this is a short season. We can’t be making those mistakes.”

Relievers Andrew Kittredge, Oliver Drake and Jose Alvarado combined to allow five runs over two pivotal innings.

“Definitely uncharacteristic,” manager Kevin Cash said. “We just couldn’t put guys away.”

Adames and centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier made misplays in the seventh inning, as the Braves extended a 5-4 lead to 7-4.

Kiermaier just missed a seemingly routine fly to the centerfield wall that set up the Braves’ first run of the inning, Cash suggesting that unfamiliarity with the stadium may have been a factor.

“I expect to make that play, I know I should, and I didn’t,” Kiermaier said. “And that was just kind of the story of the second half of that game for us, where they just executed on all ends better than us. It helped them score late insurance runs and the go-ahead runs, and we couldn’t come back.”

Two batters later, after an Alvarado wild pitch, Adames made a great stop on a sharp grounder with the infield in that looked to save a run but then threw wildly past first, allowing Johan Camargo to score, anyway.

“I know the grass was a little wet,” Adames said. “I told (starting first baseman) Yandy (Diaz) before everything, ‘Hey, be careful, because the grass is a little wet.’ I think I thought too much about it. I tried to make a perfect throw, and that’s when you make an error. It’s an error. It’s my fault. I take responsibility. It happens. It was bad that it happened late in the game, and it put us in a bad situation and we couldn’t come back from that.”

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Cash was understanding.

“We’re going to trust those guys’ defensive ability,” he said. “They’ve shown it time and time again. That’s when you want the next ball hit right to ‘em, because you know they’re gonna make the play.”

One mistake over five solid innings by starter Charlie Morton — a third-inning homer by Freddie Freeman — put the Rays down two runs. But they came back strong, getting one a throwing error by ex-mate Travis d’Arnaud — now the Braves’ catcher — in the fifth, then three more in an impressive sixth, with back-to-back two-out, run-scoring hits by Kiermaier and Hunter Renfroe.

The 4-2 lead seemed to be in good hands the way the Rays bullpen had pitched.

But Kittredge got them off to a bad start, allowing back-to-back doubles. And Drake made it worse, starting with a walk to No. 9 hitter Ender Inciarte after being ahead 0-2 in the count, then two-out, run-scoring hits to Ozzie Albies and Freeman, who had four hits on the night after striking out four times on Tuesday at Tropicana Field, putting the Braves back ahead 5-4.

Cash said Kittredge, who was warming before the Rays took the lead, was the right man for the situation.

“We’re trying to manage workloads with guys; who was available, who wasn’t available tonight,” Cash said. “Thought it was the right matchup for Kitt. I mean, obviously, there’s other guys down there that are equipped to go through three right-handers, but Kit’s right at the top of the list with those guys.”

Kiermaier made a strong throw to third to nail Albies to end that inning. That was after an even better play in the first, when he raced over to rightfield, chased down a ball that eluded Renfroe and fired to second baseman Brandon Lowe, whose relay to the plate nailed Ronald Acuna Jr.

“That was a pretty exciting moment, maybe the most exciting of the game,” Cash said.

But a few innings later there were Kiermaier, the three-time Gold Glove winner, and Adames making the uncharacteristic mistakes that cost the Rays badly in the seventh, allowing the Braves to expand their lead.

“That’s something all of us take pride in, with what we’re capable of doing out there defensively,” Kiermaier said. “That happens sometimes in baseball. We’re very comfortable with who we throw out there each and every night as far as position players on the defensive front. It happens, and then (Wednesday) it was kind of a snowball effect, I guess, in a way. Those things happen. We have the confidence in our guys to make those plays, but baseball’s a weird game and (Wednesday) was a perfect example of just that.”

The same can be said about the bullpen. Credit the Braves’ hitters, as Cash did, or blame the Rays’ relievers, but a 4-2 lead in the sixth is something they should be able to hold on to.

“With our pitchers, how nasty our guys are, we feel very good about that,” Kiermaier said. “But we’re all human, and they had some really good at-bats there in the sixth and seventh. To get two and three runs or whatever it was there late in the game, they put together really good at-bats and, once again, earlier talking about our defense and how we have confidence with our guys that we have out there, same with our bullpen.

“It doesn’t matter who you put in there, our guys are that nasty, and every now and then you’re gonna get got. ... Once again, the Braves put together some really nice at-bats, and that was kind of the answer that they needed to try to win the game, and they did just that. Tip your hat to them. We played great so far this season; we’re not gonna hang our heads about losing tonight. That’s baseball for you.”