The Tampa Bay Rays knew they were going up against an American League Cy Young favorite Tuesday night.
Boston Red Sox lefty Chris Sale strikes out batters at an alarming rate and Rays batters get punched out more frequently than most.
Not a good mix. Not for Tampa Bay, at least.
As if that challenge needed an additional boost, Sale was getting the Rays at their most vulnerable offensive point of the 2017 season. Tampa Bay bats offset being one of the highest strikeout teams in Major League Baseball by pounding home runs and extra-base hits and drawing walks. Eliminate those inputs from the equation and the result is what the Rays have been doing the past few games.
Sale struck out 13 Rays and limited Tampa Bay to two hits and a walk over eight dominant shutout innings. Closer Craig Kimbrel locked up the 2-0 win with a 15-pitch, three-strikeout ninth.
For those keeping score at home, that’s three shutouts and in the last four games. The only non-blanking came Sunday when Steven Souza Jr. walked off the Milwaukee Brewers 2-1 with a home run to left field.
Two runs in four games isn’t going to produce many wins and the Rays should be thankful they scrounged out at least one victory during such a frustrating a stretch.
As disappointing as the recent offensive slump may be, the Rays remain in the postseason hunt. Tuesday’s loss does drop them to 6 1/2 back behind the American League East-leading Red Sox, but Tampa Bay is in a three-way tie with the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Mariners for the second wild card berth.
Getting big first-half contributors to re-discover their strokes will go a long way in determining the Rays’ ability to play beyond Game 162. Tampa Bay is hitting just .222 as a team since the All-Star break and averaging only 3.3 runs per game.
Outside of Souza, Evan Longoria and newly acquired Lucas Duda, production is down across the board. Corey Dickerson (.233 batting average since the break, team-high 30 strikeouts) and Logan Morrison (.213, 27 Ks), two of the Rays’ first-half stars, continue to struggle, and catcher Wilson Ramos isn’t bringing much to the table since a quick start to his midseason comeback from knee surgery.
Ramos went deep in his fourth game back and twice more his next three starts. Since that third homer against the Red Sox on July 6, the big backstop is batting .176 (12-for-68) with four runs batted in, no home runs, two doubles, three runs scored and 16 strikeouts.