Officially, Brandon Lowe is just getting a day off.
With the Rays playing consecutive games against left-handed starting pitchers, manager Kevin Cash said both Lowe and centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier were getting a breather against the Angels on Thursday night and would be back in the lineup on Friday night in Oakland.
Unofficially, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Rays were a little concerned about Lowe’s recent performance against lefties.
While Tampa Bay routinely uses platoons in several spots in the lineup, Lowe has been one of the few constants, leading the team in plate appearances since the start of the 2020 season. Yet Cash sat Lowe against a left-handed starter April 28, pinch-hit for him against a lefty reliever May 2 and sat him again May 6.
And there’s a good reason for that.
While Lowe came into the season as a lifetime .250 hitter with 12 homers in 148 at-bats against left-handers, he is 1-for-32 this season with 14 strikeouts. He’s hitting .193 overall, but that’s almost entirely due to his struggles against southpaws. Lowe is hitting .260 with five homers in 77 at-bats against right-handed pitching.
“He doesn’t appear like he’s getting many fastballs in the zone. I think left-handers have pitched him really tough,” Cash said. “They have gone straight to the breaking ball and have not gotten away from it. In past seasons, it’s been like, ‘Let me see if I can sneak a fastball by Brandon.’ He kind of proved that didn’t work; he was able to cover it.
“He’s been pitched tough and when you combine that with really wanting to perform, sometimes you expand and he’s been caught expanding a couple of times out of the zone.”
After giving up four earned runs in each of his first four starts of the season, Friday’s starter Rich Hill said he was throwing too many strikes when ahead in the count. With an 0-2 or 1-2 count, he said he needed to get hitters to chase pitches out of the zone.
So far, it looks like the plan is working.
Hitters had been 7-for-23 (a .304 batting average) in those counts in his first four starts. Since then, opponents are 0-for-12 against Hill in 0-2 and 1-2 counts. Not coincidentally, he’s given up only two runs in his past nine innings while also using the cutter more than ever.
“Just better location, better expansion of the zone on 0-2 pitches and 1-2 pitches,” Hill said. “The ability to mix the cutter in more too, has made a big difference.”
⋅ Going into Thursday night against the Angels, Rays pitchers had held opponents to three runs or fewer in 10 of the previous 12 games, despite having three pitchers go on the injured list during that span. “Really impressive effort by everybody,” Cash said. “Maybe we haven’t gotten the amount of wins (a 7-5 record) we wanted. But you have got to really applaud the performance on the pitching side for just keeping us in every game.”
⋅ The good news: The Rays return to the Oakland Coliseum on Friday for the first time since wining the 2019 American League Wild Card Game. The bad news: The Rays have a 32-60 record in Oakland, their worst winning percentage (.348) at any stadium in the majors.
⋅ After hitting a leadoff homer on Wednesday for the Durham Bulls, Vidal Brujan hit a third-inning homer on Thursday night against former Rays prospect Matthew Liberatore. The Rays dealt Liberatore to St. Louis in the Randy Arozarena deal.
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