February 3, 2023

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Rays finding footing during June 'refresh'

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ARLINGTON — Though it sounds crazy to him as a coach, Rays hitting coach Chad Mottola takes failure as a way to improve.

The Rays struggled mightily at the plate in the first three games of the series against the Rangers, giving Mottola a lot to work with heading into Thursday’s finale in which the Rays defeated the Rangers 3-1 to split the series.

“We did little things today. We only scored three runs, left a lot of guys on, but at least we got guys on,” Mottola said. “It’s a grind. I’m using June as a start, refresh — that was the running joke the last two days — we’re 2-0 in June and hopefully we continue.”

Through those first few games, the Rays posted a combined slash line of .186/.248/.255 with 29 strikeouts and a total of 42 runners left on base. Mottola attributed the offensive struggles to a perfect storm of big arms — like Martín Pérez, the league’s ERA leader — injuries and respect from the league.

“There’s no doubt we’re underperforming. They’re professional, they take it, they accept it, we’re going to continue to work,” Mottola said prior to Wednesday’s extra-inning victory. “We’re seeing guys pitch us differently than they have in the past. It’s kind of like we’re not sneaking up on anybody anymore.”

On Thursday, the Rays reached base at least once in every inning. Almost everyone in the lineup reached base at least once, too, which is a big difference from the games prior, in which the Rangers retired a combined 30 consecutive batters and pitched nearly 18 shutout innings against the Rays between Tuesday and Wednesday.

“The only way you’re going to score is by getting guys on base and giving the guys behind you the chance for those things,” manager Kevin Cash said. “I know we’re capable of having big numbers and putting up a lot of runs, but you’ve got to be pleased because there’s a definite difference in what there was the first two nights.”

Like Mottola mentioned, the Rays did the little things Thursday, as they did the day prior: base hits, walks. There weren’t any breakout stars at the plate, but efforts from Vidal Bruján and Manuel Margot stood out most. Margot, who was hitless in the series entering Thursday, went 2-for-3 with two walks and a run.

“If he gets hits, great. If he doesn’t, he’s going to stay at it,” Cash said. “I think [his performance Thursday] was a byproduct of staying at it and just feeling comfortable in the box.”

Bruján hit the ground-rule double that scored Francisco Mejía in the second inning to give the Rays the lead, and starting pitcher Corey Kluber some breathing room. Though his contributions at the plate helped the Rays score the go-ahead run, Bruján’s defensive outing outshined the rest.

Bruján, who has mainly played and started at second base since being recalled from Triple-A Durham on May 10, made his first career start at shortstop on Thursday.

“I know he’s got his reps at short, but those first one’s in the big league level, you wonder how it’s going to go,” Cash said. “It couldn’t have been better.”

Margot described Brújan as nothing short of tremendous, right after yelling, “Watch out, Franco!” across the clubhouse to emphasize how well he played.

The last three outs of the game were hit straight to Brújan, which included a back-handed snag and throw to get Adolis García out.

“I just got to thank God for the opportunity to even have that chance to finish out the inning and take advantage of the opportunities of making those plays,” Brújan said through interpreter Manny Navarro.

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