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Tampa Bay Rays Game 122: Smyly, Jennings Are Truly Back

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Friday night’s game went right down to the wire for the Tampa Bay Rays, driving the fans who were watching insane on several occasions. The Rays’ offense missed opportunity after opportunity, stranding runners who made it to second base with one out in the first, fifth, and sixth innings and also leaving the bases loaded in the seventh. Then in the ninth, Brad Boxberger struggled mightily again, giving up a run and putting the Oakland Athletics on the verge of victory. The Rays needed every bit of Drew Smyly and Desmond Jennings‘ contributions to turn this game into a 2-1 win.

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Smyly tossed 5.2 innings giving up no runs on 6 hits, striking out 2 while walking none. Unlike Matt Moore, he did finally have that breakthrough outing after returning from his injury. Smyly’s stuff wasn’t as crisp as we saw in the past. Few of his curveballs, cutters, and changeups featured hard break as he generated just one whiff on each of those three offerings. He won nonetheless thanks to vastly improved command–he threw everything for strikes and spotted his fastball especially well when he did need swing-and-misses. Both of his strikeouts came in huge spots: after two singles with two outs in the fifth and with the bases loaded and one out in the sixth.

Smyly clearly didn’t look like an ace in this game. He allowed too much hard contact and could rarely put away hitters. He didn’t show a plus secondary pitch and his 88-94 MPH fastball wasn’t overpowering enough. And in the fifth and sixth innings, it looked like he was coming apart, just as the cynics were predicting. But despite all of the factors working against him, Smyly delivered an outing that the Rays desperately needed and raised his confidence in the process. He needs sharper stuff next time out, but with his command looking like this, there is plenty of reason for optimism.

The support for Smyly came from Jennings and the bullpen. In the second inning, in a bit of deja vu from Thursday, Logan Forsythe was hit by a pitch and moved to second on a wild pitch before scoring on Jennings’ RBI single. Jennings then looked good defensively in left field the rest of the game, making a nice leaping grab of Danny Valencia‘s line drive in the sixth inning that prevented that inning from getting worse, and his offense came back for an encore in the ninth. Jennings’ homer off Evan Scribner gave the Rays a huge insurance run as they brought in the struggling Brad Boxberger.

Jennings’ speed isn’t all the way back–he attempted a stolen base after a single, and as remarked by Dewayne Staats and Brian Anderson, he simply never got up to his usual speed as he got thrown out easily. Though Desmond Jennings has returned after knee surgery, Jennings the Basestealer may not be with the Rays for a while. But while the Rays need every ounce of offense that they can get, they will be more than satisfied if they receive solid offensive production from him along with great defense in left field. Jennings, even though he is not at 100%, looks like he can give them that.

It was also Jennings who caught Billy Burns‘ flyball to end the game in the ninth. The Rays’ relievers after Smyly were excellent as Brandon Gomes continued his remarkable turnaround with 1.1 perfect innings with 2 strikeouts before Steve Geltz tossed a 1-2-3 inning in the eighth, striking out 1. Then Boxberger came in, and he was unsurprisingly an adventure again. In fairness to him, misfortune was his enemy as much as bad pitches were.

Boxberger allowed two line drives in the inning, a Josh Reddick shot that ended up in Daniel Nava‘s glove and a single up the middle by Stephen Vogt. He also gave up a critical wild pitch and a stolen base to Coco Crisp. On the other hand, the first baserunner against him came when Brett Lawrie hit a soft groundball to shortstop that was simply in the right spot and the only run he gave up scored when Crisp hit a check-swing popup into no man’s land between Asdrubal Cabrera and Kevin Kiermaier.

What Boxberger will hopefully dwell on, though, is how he pitched after Crisp’s single narrowed the Rays’ lead to 2-1. With runners on second and third with just one out, he struck out Marcus Semien before getting ahead of Burns and eliciting the routine flyball to Jennings to end the game. Just when it looked like Boxberger was going to blow another game, he showed flashes of his previous form and ensured that he wouldn’t let this one slip away. This outing was far from satisfactory from Boxberger, but hopefully the way it ended is a sign of better things to come.

The win takes the Tampa Bay Rays back to .500 at 61-61, and they still sit just two games back of the second AL Wild Card. They will hope to continue heading in the right direction as they send Erasmo Ramirez to the mound against Oakland ace Sonny Gray in a game set to begin at 9:05 PM EST on Saturday.

Next: Rays MiLB Recap: Spencer Moran Tosses 5 No-Hit IP

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