ST. PETERSBURG — Before joining the injured list in July with a broken right thumb, Harold Ramirez had hits in nine of 11 games. That propelled his batting average to .329, and it made his earlier-than-expected return to the lineup a welcomed addition for the Rays.
Ramirez has remained one of their most consistent hitters since being activated Tuesday — with hits in all five games — and his latest three lifted the Rays to a 3-2 win over the Royals on Sunday. Ramirez’s two slow-rolling, run-scoring singles, paired with five pitchers limiting Kansas City to four hits, helped Tampa Bay to its seventh win in nine games.
The Rays (65-55), who have won three consecutive series, moved into a three-way tie with Toronto and Seattle for the three American League wild-card spots, 2½ games ahead of fourth-place Minnesota and Baltimore. The Rays also moved back into a tie for second with the Blue Jays in the East Division, eight games behind the Yankees.
“Some days we’ll hit it hard,” said Ramirez, who is 9-for-21 (.429) since returning and is batting .337 overall “Some days we hit it slow. That’s part of the game because it’s hard to hit the baseball.”
Ramirez’s singles in the first, third and fifth innings had exit velocities of 80.9 mph, 86.8 and 93.3, respectively, according to Baseball Savant. Manager Kevin Cash said the simple, contact-oriented approach works because Ramirez “sticks with it” and “doesn’t try to do too much.”
“If you’re going to work away, he’ll beat you away,” Cash said. “If you’re going to come inside, he can pull balls like we saw (against the Yankees, earlier in the week).”
Ramirez’s winning hit came in the fifth. He bounced Jose Cuas’ 0-1 pitch up the middle fast enough to evade the shortstop’s reach, yet slow enough for Brandon Lowe to score from second without a throw.
That regained the lead for Tampa Bay after the Royals tied it in the top half of the inning. Ryan Yarbrough started his outing with four scoreless innings, but things unraveled in the fifth. A one-out walk was followed by a 13-pitch at-bat by No. 9 hitter Nicky Lopez, who reached on a fielder’s choice when a grounder to Lowe a second was followed by a throwing error.
MJ Melendez then singled and Bobby Witt Jr. hit a sacrifice fly off reliever Shawn Armstrong to erase the early Rays lead.
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In Yarbrough’s past two outings, he has been tasked with following up perfect-game and no-hit bids by Drew Rasmussen from the previous day. That “really makes it hard,” he joked postgame. In the first outing, Yarbrough pitched four scoreless innings against the Yankees for his first win of the season. And Sunday against the Royals, he started with a similar efficiency.
The left-hander cruised through Kansas City’s lineup — with the exception of Witt’s first-inning double — the first time. His opening three outs only required 13 pitches. The next three only required nine. Yarbrough had four strikeouts in those opening innings, relying on a slow and sweeping curveball as the final pitch in three of them.
The Royals also started six left-handed hitters, which Yarbrough said doesn’t happen “every day as a left-handed pitcher.” He also attributed getting ahead early in counts — he started 15 of the 19 batters he faced with first-pitch strikes — as a reason for his curveball’s effectiveness.
“I mean, that thing starts at lefties and then gets to the other side of the plate,” Cash said.
Ramirez provided Yarbrough with the early cushion. He dribbled a ball up the first-base line in the first inning off starter Zack Greinke that scored Randy Arozarena from second. Christian Bethancourt made it 2-0 in the second with his second home run of the series and third since joining the Rays in July.
Initially, that served as enough run support with Yarbrough’s efficiency. But after Armstrong entered from the bullpen in the fifth, it took 4⅔ innings of relief pitching — and one final hit by Ramirez — to finish off the Royals.
“It’s impressive,” Yarbrough said of Ramirez’s impact since returning. “I’m glad he’s on our team, I’ll just say that.”
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