December 5, 2022

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Phillips a bright spot as 'team rut' drags on

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ST. PETERSBURG — The ending stung for Tampa Bay on Monday night, with typically reliable reliever Andrew Kittredge surrendering a costly late-inning homer for the third time in nine days. But it was what came before that stuck with manager Kevin Cash after the Rays’ 3-2 loss to the Tigers at Tropicana Field.

“We’ve got to do a little bit more offensively early in the ballgame. We’re just not getting it done to the point that we’re capable of,” Cash said. “I know we’re banged up, but we’ve still got plenty of guys that are more than capable of putting a little bit more pressure on pitchers — and we didn’t do that tonight.”

The Rays cobbled together two runs on seven hits and two walks against Tampa native Alex Faedo and four Tigers relievers. They’ve scored only 19 runs in their past eight games, batting just .179 during that stretch. They’ve put up three runs or fewer in six of those eight games, including each of the past three, and lost five of them.

As Cash mentioned, the Rays have been without some of their best hitters lately. Outfielder Manuel Margot, their hottest hitter this month, went on the 10-day injured list on Sunday due to a lingering hamstring injury. Second baseman Brandon Lowe, who was hitting .282 with a .993 OPS in May, joined Margot on the IL on Monday due to a lower back injury he’s battled.

But there is still plenty of talent in Tampa Bay’s lineup. It’s just not consistently producing the results the Rays need.

“We have to have guys step up,” said Brett Phillips, who did so with a home run off the C-ring catwalk to get the Rays on the board and a double that kickstarted their game-tying rally in the eighth inning. “We can’t always depend on doing it late.

“Our pitching has done great all year long. We’ve got to help them out early in the game and get a lead, so that’s what we’re going to try and do. We’ve all got to step up now with some guys out, and that’s just the reality of it. Good teams, they get production from one through nine.”

Right now, the Rays aren’t getting that. Many of their healthy hitters are mired in slumps, leading to what Cash called a “team rut.”

What will it take for the Rays to get out of their individual and collective slumps?

“I think we just continue to work. I think everybody’s aware of where they’re at at the plate,” Zunino said. “It doesn’t take much to click, and once that does, I think we’ll have more guys clicking than not because guys are really close.”

Take Phillips, for instance. He entered the night with two hits and 16 strikeouts in his past 32 at-bats. But he had been working with hitting coaches Chad Mottola, Dan DeMent and Brady North as well as special assistant Denard Span and applied biomechanist Jillian Hawkins. Phillips said Hawkins identified a glitch in his swing that prevented him from getting to anything but pitches down and away, and fixing that flaw would improve his bat path.

The work paid off. Phillips singled to center in the third inning, then blasted an inside fastball off the catwalk in the sixth, which led to a quick and confusing sprint around the bases because he initially thought umpires called it a fair ball in play. In the eighth, Phillips ripped a low changeup to right field and hustled to second base. He advanced to third on a wild pitch and scored on Franco’s sacrifice fly.

“I’ve been struggling lately. It’s no secret,” Phillips said. “It’s encouraging to have had the at-bats that I’ve had tonight. It’s a small step, and hopefully in a positive direction, and just continue to move forward. … We’re getting there, slowly but surely.”

But Randy Arozarena popped out after the tying run scored, stranding Díaz at third base and giving the Tigers a chance to pull ahead with one swing in the ninth. Harold Castro did exactly that with two outs, pulling Kittredge’s 0-1 cutter out to right-center field.

Kittredge has allowed three homers in five appearances since May 8, all game-tying or go-ahead shots, bumping his ERA from 1.46 to 3.00. But he didn’t seem worried, and the Rays have greater concerns.

“I think anybody would be lying to you if they said it didn’t test them a little bit,” Kittredge said. “But I still really like where I’m at with my stuff and my mentality, so I feel like I’m just going to get right back on.”

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