Rays left-hander Josh Fleming made himself at home Monday night. With 40 family members and friends watching from the Kauffman Stadium stands, Fleming pitched brilliantly and hardly broke a sweat (not surprising, considering temperatures that sank to the high 30s).
To welcome back Fleming, a Missouri native, the Royals even presented him with a gift.
Locked in a scoreless game, Fleming benefitted from a horrendous fifth-inning, two-out error by Kansas City first baseman Carlos Santana. It directly led to two runs and that was enough for the Rays to wrap up a 4-1 victory and establish a season-high four-game win streak.
Fleming (1-1) tossed 5 1/3 shutout innings, allowing two hits and walking none in a 65-pitch outing. He was sailing without incident when Rays manager Kevin Cash went to the bullpen — the third time through the Royals’ lineup was upcoming — and three Rays relievers continued the command performance.
“(Fleming) was outstanding,” Cash said. “Not the most comfortable elements to play a baseball game in. It just wasn’t very comfortable for the hitters tonight. You really want to focus on hitting the barrel. If not, it was going to string pretty good.
“This is a confident club. Winning helps bring that confidence out more and more. The way we handled bouncing back from a rough series at home (against the Rangers), that speaks most about the club. They recognize we got beat. We’re still a good team. When we take care of our business, we should be in position to win games. That mindset never faltered at any point.”
After Santana’s fourth-inning leadoff single, Rays pitchers retired 14 consecutive batters (and 19 of the last 20 Royals, winding back to the second inning) until Michael Taylor singled with two outs in the eighth.
The Rays couldn’t get much going against left-hander Danny Duffy, who allowed just four hits and struck out eight batters in six innings. But Duffy couldn’t escape the fifth inning.
After retiring 14 of the first 15 Rays batters, Duffy allowed a two-out single to Joey Wendle. Willy Adames (2-for-4) followed with what appeared to be an inning-ending popup. Santana, shuffling and trying to track the high popper in the wind, lost it off his glove.
Making matters worse, as the hustling Adames headed to second base, Santana threw the ball in centerfield, allowing Wendle to score the game’s first run. Kevin Kiermaier then produced an RBI single and it was 2-0.
“Joey was busting his butt down every base and thankfully Santana didn’t look at him (as Wendle ran to the plate) because he might have been thrown out,” Fleming said. “Willy’s run ended up being the game winner, so it was an awesome job running hard and getting out of the box.”
“With the wind and how it was swirling, you knew there was a chance (for Santana to misplay the pop-up),” Kiermaier said. “Those plays are not fun at all. You always run the bases hard because you never know. Little things like that go a long way for a team.”
The Rays scored again in the seventh when Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield booted what could have been a double-play grounder from Kiermaier, allowing Wendle to score from second. Kiermaier added a ninth-inning RBI single.
In relief of Fleming, right-hander Ryan Thompson retired all five of his batters. Right-hander Hunter Stickland allowed a pair of eighth-inning, two-out singles, but struck out Merrifield, representing the tying run. The Royals scored their only run on a ninth-inning sacrifice fly off right-hander Chris Mazza.
Fleming said he hoped to go deeper into the game.
“When I was warming up (to start the sixth), I saw Thompson in the bullpen and I said, ‘Awww, come on, let me go one more at least,’ ” Fleming said with a chuckle. “It’s what we do. I was totally fine with it.”
Cash said he was most impressed with Fleming’s sinker, which he said “looks like a hittable pitch … but it’s tough to do anything with (it).”
Fleming said his changeup was “the best it has felt in my time up here (big leagues).” Both pitches allowed Fleming to keep the ball on the ground and induce lots of weak contact.
That pace made the Rays defenders very happy on a cold night.
“He’s nasty,” Kiermaier said. “He’s so smart and efficient with his pitches. I’m a big Josh Fleming fan.”
As for Fleming, his home-state rooting section gave him a warm feeling.
“I didn’t hear them when I was throwing,” Fleming said. “But once I got taken out, I heard a very, very big cheer. It was awesome.”
“You could hear them (Fleming’s family and friends) loud and clear,” Cash said. “I’m so happy for Josh. Hopefully, they’ll get a chance to see him pitch a lot more games.”
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