It was a formula the Rays had seen work to perfection plenty of times: James Shields got off to a rough start before hitting a rhythm to deliver a great outing by the time it was all said and done, keeping his team in the game until their bats finally came alive. In this game, though, he didn’t do that for the Rays, but against them, and that made all the difference as the Rays blew a 2-0 lead on their way to an 8-2 loss in their series opener versus the Royals.
The Rays came up swinging against Shields and had him on the ropes right from the onset. Desmond Jennings singled to begin the game before Matt Joyce took an errant fastball from Shields into the seats for a 2-run home run. Two batters later, Evan Longoria walked and a James Loney double gave the Rays 2nd and 3rd with just 1 out. But Shields bore down from there, striking out Yunel Escobar and Luke Scott to end the inning, and that was the turning point of his outing. Shields retired 20 of the last 22 batters he faced including 13 in a row from the 3rd to the 7th, and his final line was quite impressive. He went 7 innings allowing just 2 runs on 5 hits, striking out 7 while walking 1. But if the Rays had their way, he would have thrown that exact line but come away with a loss. In this game, though, it was not to be.
Through 5 innings, Alex Cobb had been rolling, allowing no runs on 4 hits, striking out 5 while walking none. A major part of that was his curveball. He was able to use it to continuously to keep hitters off-balance, using it 6 times in the first 5 innings to get called strikes, all on the first pitch or second pitch of at-bats. Then Cobb started Alcides Escobar with a curveball for a strike in the 6th on his way to forcing him to groundout. At that point, the Royals had seen enough. Cobb was keeping Kansas City hitters off-balance with his curveball, but it really was not that great of a pitch, being left in hittable zones far too often. They only couldn’t hit it because they weren’t expecting it. But they had a trick in their back pocket to counteract that–sitting curveball on first pitches and on 0-1.
According to Brooks Baseball, Cobb threw his curveball 40% of the time on the first pitch and 36% of the time on 0-1, both more than any of his other pitches. And the Royals were not going to let him get away with getting ahead in the count against them on a mediocre offering. With 2 outs and nobody on in the 6th, Eric Hosmer saw Cobb’s first-pitch curveball coming and smacked it to left field for a double. Lorenzo Cain wasn’t fooled either when Cobb went to the curve on 0-1 against him and laced a single to left field to make it a 2-1 game. And with Cobb forsaking his curveball knowing that it wasn’t fooling anyone, he threw first-pitch fastballs to each of the next three hitters, missing each time, and on 1-0 was forced to resort to the pitch he used the least in that count, his split-change. The results were disastrous. Mike Moustakas drilled a homer to make it 3-2 before Jeff Francoeur doubled and Salvador Perez singled to make it 4-2. Jamey Wright came in to finally escape the jam. The message here is simple: Cobb has to change his approach or hitters will take advantage. He had been dominant entering this outing, but the league adjusted to him and he has to find a way to adjust back to remain successful.
Cobb’s collapse was only the start for Rays pitching as Brandon Gomes allowed 3 more runs in the 8th before Cesar Ramos allowed one in the 9th. All of Gomes’ runs were earned, but his defense did him no favors at all. Ryan Roberts called Desmond Jennings and Matt Joyce off on a popup to shallow right-center and the ball dropped in for a single that loaded the bases. And after a Moustakas sac fly, a Jose Molina throwing error brought home another run before Gomes allowed a Francoeur RBI triple to complete the damage. On the offensive side for the Rays, Joyce and Loney did have great games, with Joyce going 2 for 5 and Loney going 3 for 4, but the two accounted for 5 of the Rays’ 8 hits and that just won’t do it. If Cobb had stayed untouchable and the bullpen did its job behind him, maybe Joyce’s 2-run homer in the first inning could have been enough. But as the pitching floundered, the Rays’ hitters could do nothing but watch helplessly, making a bad situation even worse.
The Rays look to get the taste of this one out of their mouths as they take on Kansas City again on Wednesday night at 8:10 PM, with Jeremy Hellickson opposing Luis Mendoza. Hellickson was anointed the Rays’ number two starter for a reason–he has the talent and the poise to pick up Cobb and get this team right back on track–and the Rays offense has to do their part to support him. Kansas City has been a house of horrors for the Rays the past few years, but it’s time to change that over the next two games.