The start of the 2021 season for the Tampa Bay Rays has felt like luck hasn’t been on their side. The offense hasn’t been able to finish off rallies. The bullpen has faced numerous key injuries. The rotation, outside of Tyler Glasnow or Yankees games, has seemingly been prone to one disastrous inning per game.
The thing with luck is, bad or good: it doesn’t last forever.
Luck Dragons take flight
The Rays offense tonight was able to put some pretty good balls in play. They won the xBA (expected batting average, based on the quality of contact, location, etc) battle, but still ended up having multiple .900+ xBA balls find gloves rather than grass. They got runners into scoring position multiple times. They deserved to drive in more runs than they did. However, all the actual runs they scored were entirely of the luckiest and flukiest in nature.
So, I guess you could say the Rays were unlucky at the plate, and then the BABIP Luck Dragons that dictate all on the baseball diamond immediately course-corrected all in one game.
The prime example is that the Rays failed to drive in runners at 3rd with less than two out multiple times over multiple innings. This included a Francisco Mejía soft contact with the bases loaded and 1 out that lead to an inning-ending 1-2-3 double play. Zunino would NEVER! (because he probably would either hit a grand slam or strikeout)
But of course, those Luck Dragons demanded justice in the court of BABIP:
Take the runs anyway you can get them!— Bally Sports Sun: Rays (@BallyRays) April 20, 2021
Willy Adames' pop-up in the infield ends up on the ground, and Joey Wendle hustles around from first to score to put the @RaysBaseball on the board!
Watch the Rays on Bally Sports Sun and stream it live here: https://t.co/OG9nV6M8Gk pic.twitter.com/4wVwS4wrMR
There was something about that pop-up that immediately made me (and multiple other folks in the DRB slack and on Twitter) note that it just felt like it was gonna fall. Whether it was a tough sky, some crosswinds, or the magic of the Trop and catwalks traveling with the Rays, the Rays were able to get on the board. Kevin Kiermaier was able to take extra advantage of the gift, singling in Adames to put the Rays up 2-0.
The Rays would generate more RISP chances, that they would mostly squander. That is until the 9th when some more soft contact generated the cosmic balance shifting BABIP Luck Dragons to help those balls find their way into the outfield. First Willy Adames with a perfectly placed single. Then a maybe failed hit and run attempt lead to an errant throw, allowing Adames to reach 3rd. Kevin Kiermaier again took advantage, this time planting a base hit past the drawn-in infield to give the Rays a 4-0 lead.
A more exciting battle of two lefties than the final debates of the Democratic primaries, Danny Duffy and Josh Fleming were both locked in tonight.
Duffy in particular has started his 2021 campaign red hot. He’s the type of pitcher perfectly engineered to give the Rays fits. He’s left-handed, he has fantastic command, and he uses multiple pitches to keep batters off balance. If he threw about 5 MPH slower on his fastball he’d have probably thrown a perfect game.
However, on the night Duffy notched his 1,000 career strikeout (all in a KC uniform), it was the local boy Josh Fleming who got the better of him and his home state Royals.
With 40 or so of his friends and family in attendance, Fleming finally got the fans in attendance debut he and so many others were denied in the 2020 season. And Fleming did not disappoint!
Josh Fleming went 5.1 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 3 K, with 9 whiffs and an absolutely impressive 38% CSW (a newer stat combining Called and Swinging strikes, where 30% is very good and over 35% is elite). Fleming and his battery mate Francisco Mejía were able to utilize a very generous wide zone all evening. Somewhere, Tom Glavine is watching and smiling proudly seeing this level of inching out the zone:
Fleming ended his night at just 65 pitches, but most importantly for the Rays and Kevin Cash: he limited his exposure to facing the Royals just 2X through the order. It’s fair to make the case that Fleming was dominant and rarely stressed at any point on the night, and with just 65 pitches and a 2 run lead at the time. On the other hand, as the saying goes “every pitcher is cruising until they aren’t”.
In fact, for his very brief major league career, Fleming has about an even number of innings facing a team the first time through the order and the second time through the order. For the first time through, Fleming has a 1.84 ERA and 3.72 FIP, with a triple slash of .189/.204/.358. On a second time through that rises to 3.46 ERA, 6.48 FIP, and .260/.315/.500 slash line.
Fleming has looked the part as an extremely exciting young, crafty lefthander who pounds the strikezone, gets tons of ground balls, and forces weak contact. He’ll have his time to earn more (or less) chances to go deep into games as the model of a modern Rays pitcher.
Rays Bullpen locks it down
Ryan Thompson came in for Fleming and continued to be absolutely filthy, especially to righties. He got 5 outs, and never let any Royals hitter look comfortable.
Hunter Strickland got the next chance in the 8th, and continued to look like vintage Strickland, pumping mid-90s fastballs and diving sliders. A couple of weak hits got the blood pressure up, but Strickland came back to K Whit Merrifield swinging to end the last major threat KC posed.
The Rays getting a guy of Strickland’s boring but rock-solid vet competence on a minor league invite is just silly.
Just how much was luck smiling on the Rays today, Chris Mazza was able to finish off the heart of the Royals order, navigating around a well-tagged Salvy Perez double to the wall that the cold air on the evening kept in the park.
With the win, the Rays are now back above .500. They will look to take the series with one Richard Mountain set to take the bump.