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Rays have no answer for Lance McCullers in lopsided loss to Astros

The former Jesuit High standout allows only three hits while striking out a season-high nine in seven shutout innings.
Houston Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. struck out a season-high nine batters Friday at Tropicana Field.
Houston Astros starting pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. struck out a season-high nine batters Friday at Tropicana Field. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published May 1
Updated May 1

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays had been living on the edge, playing eight consecutive games decided by two runs or fewer. Everything was breathtakingly close.

Not Friday night.

This one had zero suspense. The Houston Astros threw the early punches against left-hander Ryan Yarbrough, and there was no counter-attack against sharp right-hander Lance McCullers Jr., so the Rays were soundly defeated 9-2 before 6,169 fans at Tropicana Field.

The Rays slipped to 6-9 at the Trop, which already ties the total number of home defeats in the entire virus-shortened 2020 season.

 “Yarbs, stuff-wise, looked pretty consistent, but they (Astros) just don’t swing and miss very often,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash after watching the Astros collect 15 hits, including four each by Michael Brantley and Carlos Correa, against three Rays pitchers. “When they do swing, it seems like they find a way to hit the ball very hard.”

Meanwhile, McCullers, the former Jesuit High School standout, allowed only three hits in seven shutout innings of work while striking out a season-high nine and throwing 111 pitches (second-most in his career). The Rays’ struggling offense, which has scored just 19 runs during a 3-5 homestand, is 3-for-its-last 50 with runners in scoring position. 

The Rays finally scored off Astros reliever Andre Scrubb with two outs in the ninth inning. Willy Adames had a two-run single, breaking a career-high 0-for-25 streak. Adames, getting his first hit since April 20, rounded first base and raised his arms toward the heavens.

“I kind of missed touching first base,” Adames said. “Right now, we’re in a tough moment as a team. We have to try to figure it out, come back tomorrow, try to win the game, build from there.

“The guy (McCullers) was pretty good on the mound. He was attacking hitters and mixing the ball good, attacking both sides of the plate. It was a tough day.”

Cash said he expected McCullers (2-1) to rely on breaking pitches, which he did, but the curveball-changeup-slider combination was particularly devastating. McCullers is now 2-2 with a 2.77 ERA and 33 strikeouts in 26 innings in four all-time starts at the Trop.

“I would imagine he gets excited to get back here and pitch at home,” Cash said. “After today’s outing, inning after inning, there were just no mistakes made. He had it going (Friday), for sure.”

McCullers walked three batters. Had it not been for that, Astros manager Dusty Baker said McCullers could’ve gone eight innings, maybe finished the game in nine. McCullers got a mound visit with his pitch count at 93, but was pleased to “get that extra leash” and work through seven innings.

“He found his rhythm at the end,” Baker said. “It looked like his pitch count was rising. The nice thing is they didn’t get any runs.”

The Rays didn’t get many hits or base runners, either, continuing a week-long theme.

“The guys are wearing it (offensive slump) pretty good,” Cash said. “They’re frustrated for themselves and for each other. Generally, you worry about it if it’s one, two, three guys. When it’s a (whole) lineup, there’s really not much you can do, except continue to express the belief we have in them. To a man, they want to snap out of it.”

The Astros snapped their offense to attention pretty quickly. They got to Yarbrough, who labored through a 35-pitch third inning when he surrendered four consecutive hits, including a two-run homer to Alex Bregman. Yarbrough battled through six innings, doing his best to save the bullpen, but allowed nine hits (one off his career-high) and five earned runs.

Yarbrough (1-3) is winless in his last 21 starts, going 0-10 with a 5.13 ERA as a starter since Aug. 17, 2019. Overall, as a major-league pitcher, he is 29-19 (83 games, 33 of them pure starts).

This season, Yarbrough is 0-3 as a starter with a 6.74 ERA. In two outings as a “bulk” pitcher — following an opener — he is 1-0 with an 0.84 ERA.

Friday night, he was particularly frustrated because he couldn’t get out the Astros’ elite left-handed batters, Brantley (3-for-3 against Yarbrough) and Yordan Alvarez (2-for-3 against him).

“I pitched to a lot of contact, but just a lot of balls got hit really hard and found weird holes,” Yarbrough said. “Just how it goes sometimes.”

In the third, Bregman’s two-run homer and an RBI groundout by Aledmys Diaz extended Houston’s advantage to 4-0. Slow-footed catcher Martin Maldonado led off the fourth with a triple — it hit just inside the warning-track foul line and caromed past left fielder Austin Meadows — and he scored on Brantley’s one-out single.

It was more than enough to subdue the slumbering Rays, who were 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position until Adames’ ninth-inning hit.

“It was a culmination of nothing really getting going on either side today,” Yarbrough said. “This is still the end of April. There’s a long season to go. Nobody is trying to get crazy and reinvent the wheel here. We have a good ballclub here. It’s just one of those weird stretches right now.”

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