Rays may have to settle for an OK home stand

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ST. PETERSBURG — The game Wednesday afternoon essentially ended in the top of the eighth inning, with Oakland A’s circling bases after a grand slam to punctuate sizable Rays bullpen butchery in a 6-2 loss.

Reliever Colin Poche, a call-up from Durham, a promising one at that, had no answer, particularly for Oakland’s Ramon Laureano, who wiped the bases clean. Rays manager Kevin Cash rightly admitted he maybe shouldn’t have had the 25-year-old Poche out there at in that spot with the bases loaded at Tropicana Field.

It’ all part of living and learning, and managing, in this still promising Rays season, which still has deviated slightly with the Rays dropping out of a first-place tie with the Yankees in the AL East after burning brightly to begin the three-game series with Oakland. They dropped the last two.

[ MORE RAYS: Rays fall out of first with 6-2 loss to Oakland A’s ]

I had this homestand earmarked for 5-2, coming as it does against a .500 A’s club and a sub-.500 Angels team that hits the Trop Thursday night. It’s that 5-2 is what you do when you’re serious about a baseball summer, especially after taking three of four in Boston last weekend.

Stops and starts, starts and stops. That might be this Rays team this season, clearly good enough to be 41-26, but just as capable of making mistakes in the field (Willy Adames not being able to make a throw Wednesday to bring in a A’s run) and on the bases (Yandy Diaz, caught off second) while wasting a decent turn by a starting pitcher, in this case Yonny Chirinos.

Chirinos, the mystery man, the wild card, has been great for the Rays this season, with a 7-2 record and a 2.88 ERA. With Blake Snell trying to recapture his Cy-ness, Chirinos has picked up the slack between Charlie Morton, The Man Who Wouldn’t Lose, and the rest of the staff, who together have combined for an MLB-best 2.90 ERA.

[ MORE RAYS: Matt Baker’s takeaways from Rays-A’s ]

This is the first full season of openers, and a lot of that experiment hinges on a guy like Chirinos picking up innings as starter, particularly with Tyler Glasnow on the shelf. Chirinos came through with eight big scoreless innings to set the series tone at Fenway Park last Friday. But Wednesday reminded us of how tenuous it all can be.

Cash lifted Chirinos after six innings and two earned runs. Ryne Stanek pitched a scoreless seventh and the Rays scraped for two runs in the bottom of the inning. So far, so good.

Then the bullpen mishmash caught up with Tampa Bay. Whatever buttons Cash pushed were the wrong ones. Lefty Adam Kolarek gave up a hit. Righty Chaz Roe came in and walked two batters, one unintentionally and one intentionally. In came lefty Poche and out went Laureano on a 2-2 count.

[ MORE RAYS: Rays’ Ryan Yarbrough faces a tough test vs. Angels ]

And that is how a homestand gets twisted and tangled. It might have helped if the Rays were hitting when they weren’t hitting home runs, but those hits, at least timely ones, have been hard to find lately. Tampa Bay managed 12 hits Wednesday, three each from Diaz and Tommy Pham, but came up with just those two runs.

That’s how you fall out of first, even if only by a half game. On the horizon is a big series in New York next week, three with the Yankees, who might be about to get sluggers Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton back from the injured list. Chirinos might get the ball in the series opener next Monday.

It’s no time to count out the Rays, or this summer, but just know that nothing is a given. That expected 5-2 homestand just turned 1-2, so there is work to do. These wouldn’t be the Rays if there wasn’t.

Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.

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