For three weeks, the Rays looked unstoppable. Friday night was different. Once again, the Rays couldn’t solve their biggest nemesis of 2021 — the last-place Texas Rangers — even though they made it extremely interesting with a ninth-inning rally.
The Rangers held on for a 5-4 victory against the Rays at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, giving them four wins in five games this season against baseball’s hottest team.
“We recognize we’re never out of it, regardless of how big the lead is,” said Rays rightfielder Brett Phillips, whose bases-loaded, two-run single made it a one-run game with two outs in the ninth inning. “I’m not going to sit here and say they were lucky, because this is the big leagues. Every team is good. Every team can beat another team on a given night.
“We’ve got to come back (Saturday) and play them as if we’re playing the Yankees or Boston in our division. We have to treat every team the same, respect everyone and continue to grind.”
The luck was bound to change for both teams, particularly the Rangers, who were coming off an 0-9 road trip (worst in club history), which matched their longest losing streak in the past 26 years.
The Rangers built a 5-0 lead off left-hander Josh Fleming (5-4) after five innings, mixing a series of singles with a solo home run from Joey Gallo.
The Rays were stymied by Rangers right-hander Kyle Gibson (4-0), who threw 5-1/3 shutout innings before being lifted. Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe cut the lead to 5-2 with his 10th homer, a two-run shot off reliever Josh Sborz in the eighth inning.
When the Rangers went to closer Ian Kennedy in the ninth, the Rays nearly came all the way back. Austin Meadows had a leadoff single, then two walks filled the bases with one out. With switch-hitting Francisco Mejia due up, Rays manager Kevin Cash turned to Manuel Margot, a .394 career hitter with the bases loaded, but Kennedy coaxed him into a fly out to right field.
Phillips worked a 3-1 count, then singled to right and made it a one-run game on the same field where he produced the dramatic walkoff single in last season’s World Series Game 4.
But the drama ended there. Kennedy struck out Lowe to end the game with runners on first and third.
“That’s what this team does … they play hard through nine or whatever it is and put pressure on whatever pitcher is in the game,” Cash said.
The Rays still have baseball’s best road record (21-10) and have won 17 of their last 21 games. But it was another defeat against the Rangers, who took three of four from the Rays at Tropicana Field on April 12-15.
Fleming, who surrendered five runs for the first time in his two-season major-league career, said he put too many pitches in the zone against the aggressive Rangers. Cash said he thought the Rangers probably made good adjustments on the second time through the order, particularly in the three-run fourth inning, when they collected five singles.
“They just found the holes and hit it where we weren’t (positioned),” Fleming said. “They found holes, but they were barreling it, too. I’ve got to do a better job of getting my pitches down and locating a little better.”
Cash was encouraged by the workload of Fleming, who went seven innings and threw 100 pitches, both career highs. The offense put just one runner in scoring position through seven innings and got started way too late.
Against Gibson, who struck out five and walked none in his first outing since returning from the injured list, early runs were hard to find.
“He was able to use all the weapons on both sides of the plate,’' Cash said. “We couldn’t get anything going.”
“He did a great job of keeping the ball down,” Phillips said. “With his sinker, there were a lot of ground balls. We put together good swings, but they were just hit right at people.”
Meanwhile, the Rangers produced timely offense. Their first run was a smoke-and-mirrors act in the third with a couple of plays to Rays third baseman Joey Wendle, one a deep single that didn’t allow him to catch baserunner Willie Calhoun at the bag and the other not crisp enough for an inning-ending double play (the run scored on a fielder’s choice).
It got out of hand in the three-run fourth, but the Rays still found a way to battle back.
“We were hitting the ball hard, but it was one of those days where it didn’t go our way early,” Fleming said. “But we were never out of the fight.”
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