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Trying to get Rays’ defensive problems into focus

While Kevin Cash says the sloppy play is a matter of underperforming, Kevin Kiermaier has a specific cause in mind.
Taylor Walls makes a throwing error during a game against the New York Yankees in May at Tropicana Field. Walls has been filling in at shortstop with Wander Franco and Brandon Lowe out.
Taylor Walls makes a throwing error during a game against the New York Yankees in May at Tropicana Field. Walls has been filling in at shortstop with Wander Franco and Brandon Lowe out. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jun. 18|Updated Jun. 19

BALTIMORE — There’s a lot that has been going wrong lately for the Rays.

Injured players eventually will get healthy, or replacements will be acquired. And offensive slumps really — despite feeling this way — don’t last forever.

But the surprising, and ongoing, issue has been their sloppy defense. A team that traditionally is one of the tidiest in the game — and that takes great pride in working hard at it — too often has been making a mess.

Manager Kevin Cash insists it is not due to a lack of effort, talent or preparation.

So, what does he think is the issue?

“Just probably not playing to our potential,” Cash said. “It shouldn’t be that way. Coming out of spring training, we felt we were a very good defensive team. We still feel we’re a very good defensive team. But ultimately, it’s on us to go kind of back that up.”

Veteran centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier, essentially the Rays’ secretary of defense with three Gold Gloves, has his own theory: that the root cause is a lack of focus.

“You look at the team we can put out there each given night, and we’ve got guys who can be big difference-makers out there,” Kiermaier said. “But I think as of late, or maybe throughout the course of the season, I just feel like our focus needs to — we need to just turn that up a few notches.

“Make the plays we’re supposed to, and anything else is a bonus. You see how little things like this can be a snowball effect at times. And right now we just we haven’t had a whole lot go our way. But we create those opportunities for ourselves. Just plain and simple, we need to be better.”

Choosing his words carefully, and citing himself as an example, Kiermaier said the lack of focus is an in-game issue.

“It’s truly like, just pitch-by-pitch, like how you see certain things,” Kiermaier said. “For me, when I’m out there defensively, I know when I’m super locked in, super focused, is when I’m reading foul balls and I’m reacting off certain things like that. I always test myself to do that.

“But that’s half the battle — being focused in your pre-pitch routine, or ‘What am I going to do if the ball is hit a certain way?’”

Kiermaier acknowledged there can be complicating factors.

Individual players failing to produce at the plate potentially taking their offensive issues with them to the field and being distracted.

And the team’s overall struggles leading players to try to do too much, not just at the plate and on the bases, but in the field, gambling on a diving catch or trying to make a too-perfect throw.

“When you have times like this, guys feel a little bit of pressure,” Kiermaier said. “We just need to play loose. … We have the guys in here to be great. We always say pitching and defense is what we’ve been about, and the more offensive damage we can do the better.

“But very uncharacteristic so far this season with how we’ve played on the defensive side. We’ve got a lot of talent there. Guys are getting their work in. It’s not like we’re just showing up and playing. We’re doing a lot of the right things behind closed doors. But we’ve got to make it happen when the bright lights are on.”

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Another factor among the infielders, Taylor Walls said, is the influx of young players getting opportunity because of injuries and the resulting shuffling around the field.

For example, with Wander Franco and Brandon Lowe out, Walls has been filling in at shortstop while Vidal Brujan and Isaac Paredes were called up to fill in where needed.

“Honestly I think it’s just guys getting comfortable,’’ Walls said. “There’s a lot of young guys playing positions, and a lot of young guys playing multiple positions that maybe they’re not used to playing. …

“It takes time. It takes good teammates around you building that confidence in you that you can do it. And ultimately it takes the experience.’’

The defensive downturn has been costly and has contributed to the Rays’ struggles, along with the injuries and often-impotent offense. They are 18-19 after an 18-10 start, 13 games behind the majors-best Yankees in the American League East and closer to last place than first.

The 44 unearned runs they have allowed are tied for most in the majors, closing in on their entire 2021 total of 58. (For further comparison, the Yankees have allowed a majors-low eight for the season). The Rays’ .982 fielding percentage and 42 errors are among the worst of AL teams and are trending the wrong way. In a three-game span, even the sure-handed trio of Kiermaier, Manuel Margot and Brett Phillips inexplicably dropped fly balls.

“Everyone in this room,” Kiermaier said, “knows we need to be better.”

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