December 5, 2022

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Big first just what doctor ordered for Rays

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CHICAGO — Coming off four consecutive losses in which they struggled to find any sort of consistent offense and played surprisingly sloppy ball at times, the Rays needed something to help them get back on track Sunday afternoon at Guaranteed Rate Field.

The first inning turned out to be exactly what they needed.

Just about everything broke right for the Rays to start their 9-3 win over the White Sox. And it was clear from the beginning that Sunday’s series finale would be different than the first two games, as Tampa Bay batted around to take a 4-0 lead that rookie Josh Lowe immediately protected with a highlight-reel home run robbery in left field.

That quickly, the Rays’ four-game skid appeared to be behind them.

“If it was up to us,” shortstop Wander Franco said through interpreter Manny Navarro, “I think we’d like to start every game that way.”

The Rays jumped all over White Sox starter Vince Velasquez, but not with a bunch of hard-hit balls or extra-base hits. The Rays’ hardest-hit ball of the inning, in fact, was a 98 mph fly ball that Brandon Lowe hit for the third out. But after scoring a total of nine runs in the previous four games, and 20 in their past six, the Rays certainly weren’t going to take issue with how they rallied.

They built an early lead with three well-placed singles, three walks — including two, by Yandy Díaz and Kevin Kiermaier, with the bases loaded — and an untimely error by Velasquez on Josh Lowe’s one-out, bases-loaded chopper back to the mound.

“Coming into the game, having the offense going a little bit quiet here lately, [we] needed to find a way to put some runs on the board,” manager Kevin Cash said. “And look, we didn’t do it by knocking the cover off the ball, but you’ll take it however. Good teams find ways when they’re presenting opportunities for you, and we did that.”

That changed the Rays’ entire outlook, heating them up on a 41-degree day in the Windy City. They were then able to patch together a pitching plan, going from opener J.P. Feyereisen to Chris Mazza to Jalen Beeks to Ryan Thompson to Tommy Romero in a combined three-hitter. They pulled away in a four-run eighth to avoid their first sweep since last June.

“When you see the scoreboard say 4-0 after the first inning, it gives you a lot more confidence,” Randy Arozarena, who went 3-for-5 with two doubles, said through Navarro. “Hopefully we can start every game 4-0 so that we can continue to have that confidence later on in the game.”

The score remained 4-0 for 3 1/2 innings thanks to Josh Lowe, who showed the athletic ability the Rays rave about when White Sox leadoff man Tim Anderson skied a fly ball out to left field off Feyereisen. The ball seemed bound for the bleachers, but with the cold wind blowing from left to right field, it was actually on course to land just over the 8-foot fence in left field.

Lowe tracked the ball to the wall, timed his jump perfectly, stretched his gloved left hand and reeled it in. Kevin Kiermaier, no stranger to outstanding defensive plays, screamed and sprinted over from center field to hug the rookie outfielder. Lowe said it was only his second home run-robbing catch as a professional, with the other coming last year with Triple-A Durham.

“It was kind of a weird play,” Lowe said. “The wind was really blowing in pretty hard. I didn’t think it was going that far. And then I just kept going back and made an athletic play at the fence.”

Mazza struggled in relief of Feyereisen, walking five and allowing two runs (one earned) in 2 1/3 innings, but Beeks worked out of a tough spot and Thompson breezed through the seventh. The Rays piled on in the eighth with run-scoring hits from Francisco Mejía, Franco (who has six multihit performances in 10 games so far) and Arozarena, then Kiermaier drove in another in the ninth.

“Happy that we pulled out a win,” Cash said. “Three or four losses in a row can frustrate any club, so [I’m] glad the guys came out and we had a big first inning.”

Romero optioned to Triple-A
After recording the final six outs of Sunday’s game, Romero was optioned to Triple-A Durham. The move clears a spot on the roster for right-hander Javy Guerra, who will join the Rays on Monday at Wrigley Field after Tampa Bay acquired him on Saturday. Guerra will wear No. 25 with the Rays.

After a rocky Major League debut in which he was admittedly nervous, Romero pitched better his second time out. The Rays’ No. 18 prospect allowed just one hit, a solo homer by Gavin Sheets, and struck out three while throwing 20 of 29 pitches for strikes.

“Tommy was really good,” Cash said. “Glad to see him bounce back, throw strikes the way he did. I think that’s a better version of him when he’s attacking in the strike zone, so happy all the way around.”

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