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Guardians 4, Rays 1: Bieber and co. stymy Rays bats

While it’s been a hot month at the plate for the Rays, they met their match on Friday.

MLB: Cleveland Guardians at Tampa Bay Rays Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

After a tough road trip coming out of the All-Star Break, the Rays returned home on Friday for a three-game set against the Cleveland Guardians. While their 50-48 would have the Guardians behind the Yankees, Blue Jays, and Rays in the AL East, they sat just 2.5 games behind the Minnesota Twins for first place in the AL Central to start the weekend.

The Rays sent lefty reliever-turned-starter Jeffrey Springs to the mound for his 13th start of the season. He entered Friday’s contest with 68.1 innings pitched, and a stellar 2.50 ERA (3.58 FIP, 3.26 xFIP).

Yandy Díaz and Randy Arozarena returned to the starting lineup, and Yu Chang provided some respite for Taylor Walls at shortstop.

For Cleveland, it was former Cy Young-winner Shane Bieber. While his 24.3% strikeout rate is as low as it’s been since his rookie season in 2018, Bieber has still managed to keep a 3.55 ERA over 111.2 innings, coming into tonight with 2.5 fWAR, which is tied for eighth among starting pitchers in the American League.

The Rays got to Bieber in the first, with Díaz leading off the bottom half with a single. With one out, Arozarena drew a walk which moved Díaz into scoring position, and a Ji-Man Choi single would drive him in to give the home team a 1-0 lead. Isaac Paredes reached on a fielder’s choice, and Josh Lowe drew a walk to load the bases, but Bieber was able to strike out Rays’ backstop Christian Bethancourt to strand the bases loaded.

Springs got through the first three innings relatively easily, allowing just two hits and one walk, while striking out three. He ran into trouble in the top of the fourth when Owen Miller led off the frame with a double, and All-Star selection Andrés Giménez swapped places with him to tie the game at one.

Springs ran into some more trouble in the fifth, this time against one of the game’s best hitters. He retired the eight- and nine-hole hitters to record the first two outs of the inning, but then Steven Kwan reached base with his third single of the game. With two outs, the switch-hitting José Ramírez launched his 21st home run of the season, but just his fourth from the right side of the plate. Cleveland now led 3-1.

Springs departed after the fifth, with a final line of 5 IP, 6 H, 3 ER, 1 BB, 5 K. Relievers Ralph Garza Jr. and Luke Bard kept the game competitive over a combined four innings of work, with the only other run coming from a Ramírez RBI-single against Garza Jr. in the seventh.

Kluber would pitch the bottom half of the seventh before departing. His final line: 7 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 2 BB, 8 K. Combined with the bullpen work of Trevor Stephan and Emmanuel Clase, the Guardians held the Rays to just six hits and one run in the game. After the fourth inning, only Josh Lowe managed to reach base with a ninth inning single. The next batter, Christian Bethancourt, grounded into a game-ending 5-4-3 double play. The 4-1 loss moved the Rays to 53-47.

While it seems the Rays have struggled as of late, with injuries to core players continuing to mount, the offense came into Friday with a 121 wRC+ in July. Cleveland’s pitching staff managed to keep them at bay in the series opener, but there is some uncertainty surrounding how they will approach the rest of the weekend with the trade deadline approaching.

For now, Zach Plesac is scheduled to take the bump for the Guardians on Saturday against veteran starter Corey Kluber. First pitch is scheduled for 1:10 PM ET.