Rays’ offensive struggles continue in loss to Blue Jays

Adam Berry

By Adam Berry

TORONTO — The Rays were as hot as they’ve been all year when their weeklong trip to New York and Toronto began Friday with a win over the Yankees. Drew Rasmussen returned from the paternity list and Wander Franco came back from the injured list to lift Tampa Bay to its 20th win in 25 games, which put the club within striking distance of the American League East lead and a season-high 20 games over .500.

Since then, the road hasn’t been so easy.

The Rays’ 5-1 loss to the Blue Jays on Wednesday night at Rogers Centre was their fifth defeat in the past six games, dropping them to the third spot in the AL Wild Card race. Tampa Bay is one game behind Seattle and 1 1/2 games behind Toronto.

The Rays believe they’ll bounce back, if only because they’ve done it plenty this season.

“We’re too good of a team not to. Throughout the course of a season, the ups and the downs, they do come,” Rasmussen said. “We’ll get it turned around.”

Nothing went the Rays’ way on Wednesday night, but the most glaring concern is their lineup. Franco’s return brought the group back to full strength to start this trip, but Tampa Bay has scored only 21 runs over the past eight games after putting up 45 runs during the previous eight. They’ve scored four runs or fewer in each of their past eight games.

“We’ve had ups and downs all year. It’s just how baseball goes,” infielder Taylor Walls said. “Just a week, two weeks ago, we were riding a hot streak, and we felt like we couldn’t lose. … We’ve got to try to bring it together tomorrow, grind out at-bats and just come to compete and try to win. That’s all we can really do, and every guy in here is going to do that.”

The Rays have managed only three runs the past two nights, all on solo home runs — from Ji-Man Choi and Jonathan Aranda on Tuesday, then Harold Ramírez off Blue Jays starter Ross Stripling on Wednesday.

Toronto has been tough on Tampa Bay’s lineup all season, holding the Rays to three runs or fewer in nine of their 14 games so far. Their most frustrating sequence on Wednesday came against reliever Yimi Garcia in the eighth inning, when Randy Arozarena, Ramírez and Choi struck out in order to strand runners on first and second.

“Garcia kicked it into another gear and got really nasty, really quick,” manager Kevin Cash said.

The Rays’ first two losses in this series came in the late innings, when trusted high-leverage relievers Jason Adam and Colin Poche let leads slip away. But Tampa Bay trailed from the start this time, as Rasmussen wasn’t quite as sharp as he’d been while going 4-1 with a 1.34 ERA over his past seven starts.

Rasmussen allowed four runs on six hits with just one strikeout over four innings, only the third time this season (and the first since June 10) he has yielded more than three runs in an outing.

The Blue Jays refused to strike out all night, whiffing in only two of their 34 plate appearances. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. took Rasmussen deep in the first inning, then Toronto rallied for two runs in the third on three singles and a walk before scratching across another run on two hits in the fourth.

“They are super-aggressive, and when you make big mistakes, they can do damage. We saw that in the first inning,” Rasmussen said. “On top of it, they’re not willing to strike out. So their ability to put the ball in play today did a lot of good for them.”

The Rays cut Rasmussen’s start short after only 67 pitches with an eye on the stretch run. They’re likely going to have to use their starters on regular rest the next three weeks — something they’ve avoided whenever possible this season — so they’ll manage starters’ workloads when it makes sense to do so. Left-hander Josh Fleming handled the rest of the game, saving the rest of the bullpen with four efficient innings.

“They kind of timed everything up pretty well. I don’t think they knocked the cover off the ball, but they certainly did a good job of putting balls in play, putting pressure on us and found holes,” Cash said. “They’re not a team that strikes out very much, so when they get baserunners on, they can become very, very dangerous.”

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