ST. PETERSBURG — What Ryan Yarbrough thought was a head cold during the Rays’ trip to Baltimore earlier this month turned out to be a breakthrough case of COVID-19.
Though vaccinated, Yarbrough had a few rough days — “It hit me a little bit,” he said — and while he bounced back quickly and drove home from Baltimore to Tampa, he had concerns not only of it spreading among the team but also serious worries about his wife, Nicole, who is about seven months pregnant.
By Wednesday, everyone appeared to be safe and well.
And Yarbrough was certainly feeling -—and looking — pretty good, returning to the mound after eight days on the injured list and working five strong innings in the Rays’ 8-4 win over the Orioles.
Yarbrough, who last pitched Aug. 6 in Baltimore, took over from opener Louis Head in the second inning with the score tied 2-2 and kept it there. He allowed only one baserunner — a leadoff double in the fifth — retiring his first nine and last six hitters and striking out three while throwing 46 of his 70 pitches for strikes.
“It was amazing how efficient he was and how good his stuff was for not having a normal routine,” manager Kevin Cash said. “He had a pretty broken-up period of days there where there wasn’t a lot that he could do. He wasn’t around the guys, wasn’t able to get treatment. But just awesome. Awesome for him. Picked us up in a big way.”
The Rays improved their American League-best record to 74-47, improving to a season-best 27 games over .500 and maintaining a five-game East division lead over the Yankees, who beat the Red Sox again — with Yankee Stadium fans chanting, “We want Tampa!” — to take over second place.
It also was the 14th time in 15 games this season the Rays beat the Orioles (38-81), who have lost 14 straight for the second time this season. The teams play again Thursday and three more times next weekend in Baltimore.
After two nights of record-low Rays crowds at Tropicana Field (without COVID-19-capacity limits, as earlier this season), the announced attendance was up to 6,673 on a Salute to Service night with free tickets for military, teachers and first responders.
With Yarbrough keeping the Orioles down, the Rays built the lead to 7-2 by the sixth. Rookie Wander Franco, continuing to improve and impress, was in the middle of much of it, going 3-for-4, scoring one run and driving in two. Austin Meadows and Ji-Man Choi also drove in two apiece, and Brandon Lowe helped as all nine starters had hits. By the end, they had scored eight (or more) runs for the 10th time in their last 12 games.
But the night was about Yarbrough, who was sidelined for eight days and spent the time at home throwing into a net and thinking about some of the issues he had been having previously.
“I didn’t really feel like I was in the greatest of grooves,” he said. “So you’re really kind of able to take some time and really dwell on what you’re doing well and what you’re not.
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“I feel like that was kind of the benefit, I guess, of this situation where you’re able to kind of really go back and try to figure out what you can do differently. And I feel like I was able to kind of implement some of that (Wednesday), just really get those cutters up and in on guys and keep them uncomfortable instead of missing out over the plate, which was the last outing in Baltimore.”
The improvement was obvious, catcher Francisco Mejia said, and Yarbrough started to mix in his changeup more. He also made some adjustments to his delivery, “thinking of ways to get some rhythm and some timing and everything kind of lined up again,” and decided to make more use of his windup.
“So,” Yarbrough said, “kind of a blessing in disguise, in that aspect, I guess.”
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