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Rays’ bats quiet down the stretch as Guardians gain ground

With the win, Cleveland pulls within a game and a half of the Rays for the AL’s final wild-card playoff spot.
The Rays' Yandy Diaz is out at first base during the seventh inning against the Cleveland Guardians on Friday night at Tropicana Field.
The Rays' Yandy Diaz is out at first base during the seventh inning against the Cleveland Guardians on Friday night at Tropicana Field. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jul. 30|Updated Jul. 30

ST. PETERSBURG — Same old story. The Rays went down quietly Friday night. But there is noise in the rearview mirror.

The Rays were again lifeless, falling 4-1 against Cleveland before 14,671 fans at Tropicana Field. The Guardians have pulled within 1 1/2 games of the Rays for the American League’s third and final wild-card playoff spot.

How do the Rays jump-start an offense that has totaled just 16 runs and batted just .228 in its last seven games?

“I don’t know; I’m not really sure,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “If I had the answer, we would’ve already provided it. Stay positive and trust in the guys they’re going to get out of this.

“We’ve got to get out of it together. It’s not one guy, not one guy trying to do too much. It has to be a pretty collective approach that we’re capable of putting more pressure on pitchers and hopefully getting some results.”

The Rays let Cleveland right-hander Shane Bieber (5-6) off the hook after a 26-pitch first inning. The Rays got just one run and left the bases loaded. After that, Bieber was lights out.

Rays left-hander Jeffrey Springs (3-3) surrendered a 402-foot, two-run homer to Jose Ramirez with two outs in the fifth inning, giving Cleveland a 3-1 lead it wouldn’t lose. Steve Kwan had singled and stolen second, providing an open base, but Cash said he didn’t consider walking Ramirez.

“There’s a sour taste in my mouth with the way it ended,” Springs said. “I’ve got to keep us in the ballgame there. I feel like that (Ramirez homer) was a back-breaker. Their guy (Bieber) was getting in a rhythm, getting better and better. I’ve got to leave that game 1-1. It just has to be better.”

Randy Arozarena leaves the field frustrated on a strikeout during the eighth inning.
Randy Arozarena leaves the field frustrated on a strikeout during the eighth inning. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Springs said he put a slider “in his loop” and Ramirez predictably delivered.

“Hats off to him; he didn’t miss it,” Springs said. “I have to better understand who’s up at the plate and make a better pitch. It has to be a better location. He’s not the guy I want to beat me.”

“They stole a base and we trusted Springs was going to make a pitch,” Cash said. “The slider was down. (Ramirez) has proven over the course of his career that he can handle good pitches.”

A 3-1 deficit in the fifth inning was hardly insurmountable. With the Rays’ misfortunes of late, it sure seemed that way. The Rays had a fourth-inning opportunity when Yandy Diaz, the team’s hottest batter, came up with two runners in scoring position and two outs. But Diaz harmlessly bounced out to shortstop.

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“That pitch got me fooled a little bit and I wasn’t able to connect right,” Diaz said via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “Every team kind of gets in that slump. Right now, we’re stuck in that moment.”

Diaz’s groundout started a string of 14 consecutive Rays batters being retired by Cleveland (and only two balls left the infield). The Guardians, meanwhile, tacked on with Ramirez’s two-out RBI single in the seventh.

The Rays (53-47), just 2-6 since the All-Star break, have scored three runs (or fewer) in six of their last seven games.

The Rays broke from the gate and took a 1-0 lead in the first inning on Ji-Man Choi’s RBI single. But after the they loaded the bases with two outs, Bieber struck out Christian Bethancourt.

“After that, Bieber definitely settled in,” Cash said. “He got his pitch count up and didn’t have a good feel for the strike zone in the first. After that, he thew his fastball where he wanted to.”

Cleveland evened the score in the fourth when Andres Gimenez produced an RBI double — the third consecutive hard-hit ball off Springs that inning (including Owen Miller’s double and Franmil Reyes’ sacrifice fly).

The Rays missed their chance to retake the lead in the bottom of the fourth. Josh Lowe singled and was thrown out on Bethancourt’s bunt attempt. With two outs, Yu Chang singled and both players advanced on Bieber’s balk, giving the Rays two runners in scoring position. But Diaz couldn’t produce.

And that was that.

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