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Rays 1, Cleveland 3: First things first (and last things last)

Two strange 2019 trends continue in a tough loss

Tampa Bay Rays v Cleveland Indians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

It happened again. (But it didn’t play out the same.)

For the 30th time this season, the Rays scored first. They had previously won 22 of those 29 games.

Even more impressively: it happened again. (But, again, it didn’t play out the same.)

For the 23rd (23rd!) time this season, the Rays scored a run in the first inning. They had previously won 18 of those 22 games.

Looking over the Rays first-inning stats this season is like looking upon a Salvador Dali painting for the first time. It makes no sense, but your brain loves it. Through yesterday’s games, the Rays lead all of baseball with a 148 wRC+ in the first inning. That’s the equivalent of sending Honus Wagner, then Mike Schmidt, then Albert Pujols to the dish (well, career numbers—thankfully not 2018 Pujols).

But it’s not just on that side of the ball. The Rays pitchers have a 3.52 xFIP and have allowed just a .242 wOBA to opposing batters in the first frame this season (again, through May 23). Both of those figures lead the league, the latter by 20 whole points. To bring in historical comps again, Jim Palmer had a career 3.50 xFIP, while the .242 wOBA is less than Cy Young had for his career as a hitter!

Needless to say, the Rays first inning success may not be sustainable at this level all season, but let’s not look a first-inning horse in the mouth — it’s been tantamount to their success so far.

On Friday, it was Austin Meadows who got things going right off the bat with a leadoff double, with Avisail Garcia bringing him around two batters later with a single.

Reigning Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell (who is beginning to look more and more like a candidate for this year’s award several months from now) did his part as well, retiring the side in order in the first and boosting those already bonkers first-inning numbers.

However, from there, things weren’t quite as easy as some of the other first-inning leads have been. Despite seemingly being in trouble every single frame, Cleveland starter, Shane Bieber managed to hold the Rays off the board for the rest off his shorter-than-usual five innings. That should’ve been the first sign. The teenage girl looking eerily in her rearview mirror in the Blumhouse Film of a night the Rays were about to live through.

A home run from “Cleveland Joey Rickard” aka Jordan Luplow tied up the game in the fourth, and the score stayed that way through the rest of Snell’s outing when he departed (much to his chagrin) with two outs in the seventh.

Of course, the longer it got in the game with the score tied, the more Rays fans were going to be nervous. It’s become a running joke (laugh through the pain) that the Rays should just avoid one-run games (and really close games at all) this year. They came into Friday night 3-8 in one-run games this season, despite a bullpen that ranks second-best by fWAR and third-best by ERA.

We laugh because obviously there’s no reason the Rays should be so cursed in one-run games. For the most part, these games are coin flips, and the slight edges a team can get (strong bullpen, good coaching) are areas where the Rays excel anyways.

But it is a continuation of a strange streak. The Rays haven’t posted a winning record in one-run games in any season since 2014, and they have a combined 91-120 record in one-run games over that stretch. That’s a .429 winning percentage, or a 69-win team.

I bring this up** not to suggest that we should consider the Rays the moral equivalent of the 2018 Texas Rangers in one-run games moving forward, but rather to say: That’s really weird, right?!

** This is when you yell at me for going on this rant in what was actually a two-run loss, but it certainly felt like a one-run loss.

Cycling back to the actual action on the field: In the eighth, Cleveland took advantage of Jose Alvarado looking a bit like he did in the New York series (we may need to actually talk about this soon, but not just yet), and Brad Hand shut the door in the ninth, leaving the series tied at 1-1 heading into Saturday. In the preview I said a split was a must, three out of four should be the goal, and a sweep would be nice. Well, now it’s up to the weekend crew to make sure things don’t go awry.

Other Collected Notes

  • This, just this:
  • Brandon Lowe got peppered with breaking balls by Bieber tonight, and didn’t have his best showing against them. Following up what I wrote yesterday, I wouldn’t be surprised if that starts happening more and more until Lowe adjusts.
  • At one point in the middle innings tonight, Snell had half the pitch count of Bieber. Considering the times early in his career that the case was reversed, that had to feel good for Snell (although rather empty after the end result).
  • The broadcast crew called out Tommy Pham for never smiling between the lines. Hey, that’s not true! We caught him at least once… Ok, I think this was the only time
  • Try to channel your inner Tommy and smile despite a tough loss. Life still goes on.