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If Rays need to recall what winning looks like, the O’s can show them

John Romano | Baltimore did all the little things that mattered most to knock Tampa Bay out of first place for the first time in 2023.
 
The Rays' Randy Arozarena hit into a double play, struck out four times and left six runners on base in Thursday's 4-3 loss to the Orioles that knocked Tampa Bay out of first place in the American League East.
The Rays' Randy Arozarena hit into a double play, struck out four times and left six runners on base in Thursday's 4-3 loss to the Orioles that knocked Tampa Bay out of first place in the American League East. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published July 21, 2023

ST. PETERSBURG — Here’s the most damning thing you could say about the Rays’ fall from first place Thursday night:

It felt like fait accompli.

It didn’t matter that Tyler Glasnow pitched his heart out. It didn’t matter that the Rays outhit the Orioles, or that the bullpen was practically perfect. It didn’t even matter that the Rays came from behind and had the potential winning run on base in the seventh, eighth and 10th innings.

The bottom line is the Orioles made the plays that mattered. The Orioles brought the kind of vibe that made the Rays so much fun to watch earlier this season. Aggressive, smart, selfless. They weren’t swinging for the fences, and they didn’t get careless in the wrong moments. That’s why the Orioles won 4-3.

And that’s why the Rays are in second place for the first time in 2023.

“They beat us,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “And they beat us in many facets of the game. I’d like to think that we can come out and play better.”

What began as a lull and graduated to a slump is now threatening to look like a freefall. It took the Rays three months to build up a 6.5-game lead on Baltimore in the American League East, and that’s been completely wiped out in 14 games. It hasn’t quite reached a Shakesperean level of woe, but it has that potential if the Rays do not rediscover their flow.

Is there any concern that an extended funk could come back to bite the Rays?

“Not with this team,” said second baseman Brandon Lowe. “Not in July.”

The good news is this just might be a course correction. A dramatic, frustrating, heartbreaking course correction that was probably overdue.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the Rays were hitting .295 as a team with runners in scoring position. That’s a crazy number for a team that struggled to score runs a year ago. So the idea that Tampa Bay is hitting .167 with runners in scoring position in the past 13 games might be an inevitable return toward a more realistic number.

Yandy Diaz reacts after a two-run RBI double in the seventh inning.
Yandy Diaz reacts after a two-run RBI double in the seventh inning. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The key, however, is that the Rays need to adjust. They need to rediscover the measured approach that helped so many of them become better hitters in the first half of 2023. They may not get back to averaging six runs a game or a .300 team batting average, but they can look far more strategic than recent at-bats.

“We’ve still got 62 games left,” said reliever Jason Adam, who pitched a perfect eighth inning Thursday. “Obviously we’re not happy that we’re no longer in first, but it was never our goal to be in first place in the middle of July. Our goal is to be the last team standing in October.

“This team is incredibly talented on offense and defense, so we’re not worried. We just need to keep our heads down, and doing what we need to do.”

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The Rays had some big moments on Thursday night. Taylor Walls made a spectacular play at third base in the second inning. Yandy Diaz came up with a huge two-run double in the seventh. Brandon Lowe had big defensive plays in both the ninth and 10th innings.

But, in the end, it was the Orioles who kept the pressure on at-bat after at-bat. Gunnar Henderson took advantage of Walls not being in position, and Randy Arozarena lacking any sense of urgency to stretch a double into a triple and beginning a three-run rally in the fourth. And it was Baltimore that played small ball in the 10th with a sacrifice bunt followed by a sacrifice fly to drive in the winning run.

That’s how teams win in a pennant race.

“It would have been cool to have stayed in first place the entire year, but I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a team do that,” said Lowe. “There’s a reason for that. Baseball is a hard game.”

Once, they were precocious. Fun-loving and free-spirited.

For two months, the Rays were raking and posing. They were dealing and grinning. Mostly, they were winning day after day.

What happens next will determine how the 2023 Rays will be remembered.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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