NEW YORK — The Rays seemed to have so much going for them entering Saturday afternoon’s game against the Yankees.
Momentum, certainly, having won four straight, nine of 10, 20 of 25 and an American League-best 24 of 34 since the start of August.
The matchup, with Corey Kluber usually pitching extremely well against the Yankees, with seven shutout innings on Sept. 3 and a 1-1, 1.08 over four starts this year.
And motivation, with a chance to further whittle the Yankees’ once-hefty East division lead, which they had cut from 15 ½ games on July 10 to 3 ½ (and two in the loss column) on Friday. Plus, a Saturday win would have tied the season series 9-9 and set up Sunday as a one-game playoff for the postseason tiebreaker.
All that lasted for about 15 minutes.
Kluber couldn’t get anything going or anyone out, allowing seven consecutive singles to start the game, putting the Rays in a six-run, first-inning hole they didn’t come close to escaping in an ugly 10-3 loss.
“Disappointing? That’s fair,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Anytime we lose it is. But you bounce back and you play a big series, and Game Three of the series, and see if we can find a way to win.”
The Rays dropped to 78-59 and fell 4 ½ games behind the 84-56 Yankees with 25 to play, and they have a much tougher remaining schedule. The Rays do still lead the three-team AL wild-card field, ahead of the Jays (who they play five times in four days starting Monday) and Mariners, and with a 5 1/2-game cushion over the fourth-place Orioles, pending late results.
“We just need to win,” Harold Ramirez said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s for the wild card or for first place. We just need to win.”
They obviously felt good about those chances Saturday, but Kluber quickly made a mess. Singles by Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Gleyber Torres produced one run. A Josh Donaldson ball that hit the top of the rightfield fence — which he clearly thought was over by the way he tossed his bat and reacted — loaded the bases.
Oswaldo Cabrera, Miguel Andujar and Isiah Kiner-Falefa followed with RBI singles. A fielder’s choice grounder scored another run, then Kluber got a pop-up. But when Judge singled again, Kluber’s day was done after 32 pitches.
“I think overall there were too many mistakes for 32 pitches, combined with a few balls that found holes,” Kluber said. “But I’d say overall just didn’t execute enough pitches.”
Kluber allowed six runs on eight hits overall, facing 10 batters and getting just two out for the shortest outing of his storied career. The Yankees became the first team in 35 years to start a game with seven straight singles, per STATS LLC, the Royals doing so on April 22, 1988, against Baltimore.
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The bright side, if there was one, was that Kluber wasn’t hurt, sick or tired. And his velocity and other basic analytical numbers were in line with his season averages. “Felt outstanding,” he said.
He allowed that the Yankees may have had an edge in facing him in consecutive starts (and three in the last 3 1/2 weeks) and acknowledged they were a bit more aggressive Saturday in their approach.
“I didn’t feel like anything was off,” he said. “Sometimes I guess maybe when you face a team five or six days ago, maybe they have a better idea. And then when you do make mistakes, it’s probably amplified a little bit. But overall, just didn’t make enough good pitches.”
Cash said he considered letting Kluber have another batter or two with the chance to get out of the first and end up pitching another few innings, but opted instead to lighten his workload.
That led to the second unexpected team bullpen outing within five days, as the relievers covered nine innings Tuesday when Drew Rasmussen was attending to the birth of his first child. “That’s the last situation you want to put them in as a starting pitcher,” Kluber said. Five relievers got the Rays to the eighth Saturday, and catcher Christian Bethancourt finished.
“I think we’ve done a pretty good job all year of responding to adversity, whether it be the poor games like today, injuries and all that sort of stuff,” Kluber said. “I think the approach of taking things one day at a time, one game at a time has paid off for us and I don’t see any reason why we’ll sway from that right now.”
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