ST. PETERSBURG — After striking out Seth Brown on a wicked slider to end the third inning, Shane McClanahan stalked off the mound, muttering to himself and shaking his head slightly. For as well as the Rays’ Opening Day starter pitched on Wednesday night, the one sequence that went awry would stick with him.
McClanahan was not solely responsible for the Rays’ 4-2 defeat to the A’s at Tropicana Field, although he was saddled with the loss. Tampa Bay had plenty of chances to rally, but the Rays struggled against A’s ace Frankie Montas and finished 1-for-11 with runners in scoring position. They left nine runners on base, including two each in the second, seventh, eighth and ninth innings.
“I just don’t think we also were able to produce with runners on base today,” catcher Francisco Mejía said.
And McClanahan was excellent for most of his outing, with manager Kevin Cash calling his stuff “outstanding” and his overall performance “lights-out.” But it was that two-out sequence in the third inning — walk, walk, Sean Murphy home run — that left the lefty shaking his head.
“Felt good today. Felt really good. I think I made a lot of good pitches,” McClanahan said afterward. “I think I made one really bad pitch, and it’s baseball. Sometimes it happens.”
Aside from that sequence, McClanahan seemed to be in control all night. He struck out eight of the 19 batters he faced and only yielded two hits over 4 2/3 innings. He forced the A’s to swing and miss on 16 of his 85 pitches, generating at least three whiffs on each of his four offerings: the fastball that touched 99.7 mph, the curveball that produced five swinging strikes, a changeup that drew three whiffs on four swings and his typically sharp slider.
“It’s unfortunate, because that outing didn’t represent how good he was, I think,” Cash said. “But you’ve got to give credit: Oakland put pressure on him to get the two walks, and then they come up and hit the three-run homer. When you’re facing a guy like Montas, [that] can put you in the hole pretty quick.”
The Rays were in desperate need of an efficient start after burning through their bullpen for 16 2/3 innings over the previous two nights, and McClanahan delivered a promising start in that regard. He breezed through a 12-pitch first inning and struck out three while working around two baserunners in a scoreless second. The third inning initially brought more of the same as he quickly retired Cristian Pache before freezing Chad Pinder with a curveball.
After that, though, Jed Lowrie and Stephen Piscotty combined to take 11 consecutive pitches without so much as one swing. Lowrie watched four offspeed pitches around the edges of the strike zone, took a low fastball and walked to first base. McClanahan also fell behind Stephen Piscotty, 2-0, before throwing a curveball and a fastball at the bottom of the zone. The former was called a strike, the latter wasn’t, then McClanahan landed another curveball in the zone before dropping one down and inside for ball four.
McClanahan felt he fell out of rhythm after getting the second out, saying he just “lost it for those two guys.” But Mejía said he felt McClanahan was throwing quality pitches during that sequence, instead crediting the A’s for their selective approach.
“Back-to-back walks, I don’t know what that was,” McClanahan said. “Haven’t done that in a while. Hopefully we don’t see much of that again.”
Murphy, too, thought the tide turned with the consecutive walks. After a mound visit from pitching coach Kyle Snyder, the A’s catcher got ahead in the count, 2-1. McClanahan tried to locate a curveball down in the zone, but he left it up over the middle, and Murphy smashed it out to right-center field.
“He has great stuff, so you just kind of look for something out over. He leaked a curveball back more towards the middle of the zone, and I was able to get the barrel to it,” Murphy said. “When you’re facing him, you just sort of look for something in the middle and do your best.”
“It’s baseball. That’s just how it is. Sometimes that ball gets popped up, sometimes it gets swung through, and sometimes it gets put over the fence,” McClanahan added. “Just got to roll with it and keep moving forward.”
McClanahan struck out Brown then retired each of his final five hitters. With his pitch count at 85 and Lowrie coming to the plate with two outs in the fifth, Cash took the ball from McClanahan. That McClanahan exited earlier than he’d hoped after consecutive strikeouts on nasty pitches was a fitting end to his night: impressive, but still frustrating.
“I kind of put myself in that situation to not be able to give my team the amount of innings I felt like I wanted to give them, so that was the right decision,” McClanahan said. “It was just kind of a frustrating day. I thought I threw the ball well, and the results weren’t there.”