The Rays are a franchise built on defense. The Rays construct their roster out of impressive defensive players so that errors become a novelty, something to laugh about. Watching the Rays play, we know that there will be errors, but overall we take the Rays’ defense for granted. They won’t be perfect, but we are always confident that they’ll make the vast majority of the routine plays and add in some more difficult plays as well. On Tuesday night, a player that has been lauded for his defense fell apart: Evan Longoria. It left everyone watching in a state of shock. And that changed the momentum in the game, putting this one out of reach for the Rays as the Blue Jays won 7-3.
The Blue Jays took an early lead in the first inning off of Jeff Niemann and the Rays when Jose Bautista deposited a misplaced fastball by Niemann into the left field seats to give Toronto a 1-0 lead. It was an annoying occurrence but certainly understandable- Bautista is one heck of a home run hitter. And we had to hope that a 1 run lead would be something the Rays could overcome without too much effort. The events of the third inning, however, left Niemann and the Rays flummoxed and bewildered.
The inning began with a bullet line drive off the bat of Blue Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia that Evan Longoria was able to knock down and pick up, but he got nothing on his throw to 1st as Arencibia reached. Longoria was given a hard-luck error. The next batter, Yunel Escobar, hit a groundball to Longoria. He fielded, about to get the force play at second and maybe start a double play, but the ball dropped to the ground as Longoria attempted to transfer the ball from his glove to his hand, and everyone was safe. Longoria was visibly frustrated and everyone watching had to wonder what they had just seen. Two easy outs turned into 1st and 2nd with nobody out. Niemann was able to force Kelly Johnson to ground into a force play at 2nd for what could have been the inning’s third out but instead gave the Jays runners on the corners with 1 out as Jose Bautista came up to the plate. Niemann was able to fool Bautista a bit and force him to hit a routine flyball to left. But that drove in a run to give the Jays a 2-0 lead. Niemann’s expression following the play made his thoughts: “How many outs do I need to get this inning?” Niemann had already forced five should-have-been outs. Yet the inning continued. With Adam Lind at the plate, Niemann overthrew a fastball for a wild pitch. And then he hanged a curveball to Lind, and Lind took advantage, drilling a 2-run home run to extend the Jays’ lead to 4-0.
Niemann came back to toss scoreless frames in the 4th and 5th, and the Rays got back into the game in the latter of those innings as Reid Brignac and Chris Gimenez singled home runs off of Blue Jays ace Ricky Romero to make the score 4-2 before both were stranded on base, at 2nd and 3rd. Longoria singled to left to begin the 6th before being erased on a Luke Scott double play grounder. That could very well have compounded Longoria’s frustration further.
Niemann departed after walking Bautista to begin the 6th, making way for J.P. Howell, who walked Adam Lind to tip Joe Maddon’s hand again. Maddon brought out Brandon Gomes, who was making his first major league appearance of the year after spending the first couple weeks of the season rehabbing from back surgery at Triple-A Durham. Gomes started off well, striking out Edwin Encarnacion for the inning’s first out. He then forced Eric Thames to hit a soft groundball to Longoria. Longoria charged, gloved the ball, and fired to first, but his throw tailed towards Thames, rendering it virtually uncatchable without risking injury as Carlos Pena was lucky to glove it at all, and the ball rolled into foul ground, allowing Bautista to score and the remaining runners to advance. The play was ruled a single by Thames as he had a chance to beat the play to begin with, and Longoria’s third error of the game. Gomes got out of the inning without further trouble but it was stunning to see Longoria make three errors in the same game for the first the first time in his career. Niemann went 5+ innings, allowing 5 runs but just 2 of them were earned. he allowed just 3 hits and 1 walk while striking out 5. On another night, we would have been praising Niemann for his performance in a Rays win.
Matt Joyce homered off Romero to lead off the 7th to pull the Rays within 5-3 and end Romero’s outing. Jason Frasor got three straight outs to end the inning. The Jays added to their lead in the bottom of the inning, with Jake McGee unfortunately staying true to form (as we discussed earlier today), showing electric stuff but allowing an RBI single to Adam Lind on a fastball up (the run was charged to Gomes, who walked Yunel Escobar to begin the inning). Brett Lawrie homered in the 8th to extend Toronto’s lead to 7-3. That would be the final as the Rays lost what should have been a winnable game.
Jeff Niemann showed definitely improvement in his second start of the season, but Longoria’s errors marred what could have been a nice outing, and it didn’t help matters that the Rays went 2 for 10 with runners in scoring position. Every Rays starter other than leadoff man Desmond Jennings reached base, and the Rays got a 3 for 4 day from Carlos Pena including 2 bunt singles to beat the shift against him, but the Rays were victimized by three double play groundballs. The Rays, especially Longoria, need to refocus and get back on track tomorrow at Rogers Centre as David Price takes on Brandon Morrow. Hopefully the Rays can get back to their pitching and defense formula while adding some hitting to the equation and get back on track after a tough week.