ST. PETERSBURG — After Josh Fleming came up and delivered the strong start the Rays were hoping for Wednesday, allowing only a homer to ex-mate Nate Lowe, reliever Chris Mazza failed them in a messy seventh that started with a walk and ended with four two-out Rangers runs.
Yet the bigger problem in the 5-1 loss, the Rays’ second straight and seventh in their past 10 games, was the ongoing lack of offense.
Though a Brandon Lowe homer leading off the ninth kept them from being shut out, the Rays have definitely been shut down. They’ve scored five runs in the first three games of this series, 13 in their last five and only 46 total in their 12 games, of which they’ve lost seven.
“It’s tough right now,’' manager Kevin Cash said. “It’s tough. We’ve got too many guys that are just not feeling like themselves in the batter’s box, and I think that’s showing more than anything right now.’'
The struggles have been a team effort, with four players in Wednesday’s lineup hitting .200 or below, and Joey Wendle the only one on the team above .300.
And their inability to deliver showed several times, as they were 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position.
Most glaringly in the second, when they had runners on second and third with no outs, and got nothing as Manuel Margot, swinging 1-0, hit a fly to shallow left against Rangers starter Kohei Arihara. Then Yoshi Tsutsugo (who faced Arihara once in Japan in 2016) and Mike Zunino struck out.
“We have to find a way to get one in right there,’' Cash said.
Actually, they looked like they would have one when Wendle followed Yandy Diaz’s leadoff single with a double into the rightfield corner. As Texas’ Joey Gallo bobbled the ball, third-base coach Rodney Linares demonstratively waved Diaz home, but he slowed and stayed at third.
“Looked like there was a little bit of communication mishap,’' Cash said. “Rodney does a tremendous job of getting reads. From my vantage point, he was sending Yandy at the time, but I don’t know if Yandy just didn’t feel like he could make it or took a bad read himself. I’m not really that sure. That certainly was not the story of the game.’'
Mazza made sure of that with an eventful performance.
He came on after Fleming allowed the first two to reach in the sixth, gave up a single to load the bases, then — thanks to a good play by Diaz at first, a favorable replay review and another good play by Wendle at third — escaped unscathed.
“That’s usually a big momentum swing,’' Mazza said. “Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to keep that energy going to the next inning.’'
Much was self-inflicted as the right-hander fell behind the first two hitters, who walked and singled, then after Diaz started another snazzy double play, did so again with a four-pitch walk. Mazza then a gave up a two-run double on “a great” 0-2 pitch to David Dahl. Two more runs scored on ball off the top of the wall by Adolis Garcia that looked to be an inside-the-park homer until a replay reversal on Zunino’s tag.
Fleming, called up to replace injured Chris Archer in the rotation, did what he does well, mixing pitches, working fast and getting his usual soft contact, allowing four hits and two walks. He induced nine ground-ball outs (including four hit back to him) over five-plus innings.
But the left-hander gave up the homer leading off the second to Lowe, a former teammate he faced off with dozens of times last summer at the alternate-training site.
“Coming into the day, I was like, if anyone’s going to get a hit or a home run, whatever it may be, it better not be him,’' Fleming said. “And sure enough, he was the one to take me deep.’'
Those Port Charlotte showdowns paid off. “I think it was safe to say he kind of knew kind of what I had coming to him,’' Fleming said.
Said Lowe: “I faced him too many times. And he ate my lunch all the time. He’s got elite stuff when he gets to his arm side. You’ve just got to take advantage of what you can when he makes a mistake.’'
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