ST. PETERSBURG — For the first time this season, Shane McClanahan didn’t have his All-Star stuff on the mound.
The ace left-hander reached season-high (or -low) marks for all the wrong reasons in the Rays’ 5-3 loss to the Guardians on Sunday afternoon at Tropicana Field, a forgettable outing he was able to quickly brush aside as just an off day.
McClanahan allowed five runs, matching his relief appearance in last year’s American League Division Series Game 4 for the highest total of his career, as his ERA jumped from 1.76 to 2.07. He yielded seven hits and three walks, both tying season highs. He struck out a season-low four hitters and worked only 4 1/3 innings, his shortest start since Opening Day, despite throwing 96 pitches.
“It’s just how humbling the game of baseball is. Things can be going right for so long, and one of these days is just going to sprinkle in,” McClanahan said. “Ultimately, it’s up to me to keep working hard and put myself in a good spot again for the next start.”
The Rays have dropped seven of 10 games since the All-Star break, with three series losses in that stretch. Sunday’s defeat sealed their first series loss against Cleveland since Aug. 10-13, 2017.
“It’s the way it’s going right now. It’s tough for us to get momentum — momentum in the game, momentum winning games,” manager Kevin Cash said. “[I’d] like to think that we’re going to get there, and hopefully sooner than later.”
McClanahan had pitched at least six innings while allowing two earned runs or fewer in a franchise-record 13 consecutive starts entering Sunday. He hadn’t allowed three earned runs in one start in three months. He hadn’t exited a start without completing five innings since April 13, his second start of the season.
It’s a testament to how consistently dominant McClanahan has been that Sunday qualified as a shockingly pedestrian performance.
But it’s not as if the Guardians bashed balls around the park in the series finale. In fact, McClanahan allowed only one “hard-hit” ball, with an exit velocity of 95 mph or more: a fielder’s-choice grounder hit by Amed Rosario in the second inning. None of Cleveland’s seven hits off him came off the bat harder than 89.5 mph.
“Just got to understand that those balls are gonna fall sometimes, and sometimes they’re not,” McClanahan said. “Ultimately, [I’ve] got to make better pitches and keep making adjustments.”
McClanahan’s rough outing was evident in his underlying metrics, too. His average fastball velocity on Sunday was 95.2 mph, according to Statcast, down 1.6 mph from his season average. His breaking balls had less break than usual, and his changeup induced only three whiffs on 15 swings.
“It just wasn’t there today,” McClanahan said. “It was just one of those days where the stuff wasn’t playing like it normally plays.”
Instead, the damage against McClanahan mostly came through ground balls, bloop hits and rare self-inflicted mistakes.
McClanahan issued a leadoff walk in the second before allowing a 67.1 mph single to left by Ernie Clement. He then hit Austin Hedges in the foot, only the second batter he has plunked all year, before Myles Straw served a 66.1 mph two-run single to right-center. José Ramírez then rolled a two-out RBI single through the left side of the infield, giving the Guardians a 3-0 lead.
The Rays came back to tie the game, putting McClanahan in a good position despite his uncharacteristically high pitch count heading into the fifth inning. But he allowed a one-out single to Franmil Reyes, walked Andrés Giménez on four pitches then walked Alex Call after getting ahead in the count, 0-2. That brought an end to his day, but he was responsible for both runs that scored when Hedges slapped a two-run single to center off reliever Ryan Thompson.
“It’s good that we not only drove his pitch count up, but we have something to show for it because we kind of pecked him to death,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “Better than striking out.”
The Rays had a couple of opportunities to get back in the game, including one that ended with Brandon Lowe being easily thrown out at the plate in the fifth. But ultimately, they were undone by an unexpected off day for their ace.
“I don’t think one start defines a season,” McClanahan said. “I think I’ve done a lot of good this year, and I think I can continue to do a lot more good and just keep working hard.”