Rays open key homestand with frustrating loss to Yankees

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ST. PETERSBURG — As frustrating as it was to that point, Tuesday’s game was setting up for a storybook finish for the Rays.

Down a run to the Yankees in the ninth inning, rookie Wander Franco worked a tremendous two-out at-bat in his first look at Yankees flamethrower Aroldis Chapman, fouling off a 103.1-mph sinker, in turning an 0-2 count into a walk.

That brought up the Rays’ prized trade acquisition, DH Nelson Cruz, with the chance to make his home debut a smashing success with a hit or, even a better, a game-ending homer.

There was even some recent history on their side. While with the Twins on June 10, Cruz hit a walkoff homer off Chapman.

“We were all hoping for a repeat scenario,” second baseman Brandon Lowe said.

Alas, it wasn’t to be. Cruz, up 3-0 in the count, ended up striking out. And the Rays, trying to play catchup most of the night, ended up losing 4-3.

“We just came up short, felt like the whole day,” manager Kevin Cash. “Just a little behind.”

The loss dropped the Rays to 60-41 and two games back in the American League East race. And it was a reminder, in the opener of a big 10-game homestand against their two most rabid rivals — the wild-card contending Yankees (52-47) and division-leading Red Sox, with the Mariners to follow — of just how tough the competition will be over the final stretch of the season.

The game was a tough one throughout for the Rays before a spirited Tropicana Field crowd of 12,678.

Starter Shane McClanahan worked in and out of trouble for the first four innings, getting outs when he had to and help from his defense, such as centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier making a nifty play and strong throw in the fourth to limit Gleyber Torres to a single on a 406-foot, 108.2-mph drive that hit the wall on a fly.

But the Yankees cashed in with a run in the fifth, then two in the sixth as McClanahan allowed three straight hits to start the inning.

For the night, the rookie lefty battled through six innings, allowing 12 of the 28 batters he faced to reach on nine hits and three walks, but only three to score.

Cash noted some variance in velocity but said he felt McClanahan threw well overall. “That’s a challenging lineup to face and I thought he made big pitches,” Cash said. “They just pieced together the two-run inning.”

McClanahan said he felt fine, but it was just a tough outcome. “I made the pitches when I needed to make the pitches,” he said. “It was a frustrating night. I got the ground balls that I wanted and the weak contact, but that’s baseball. Sometimes it doesn’t roll your way.”

The Rays closed to 3-2 in the sixth when Lowe hit a two-run opposite-field homer, his 22nd of the season (but first since July 11).

The Yankees extended the lead to 4-2 when outfielder Ryan LaMarre, a journeyman who was in spring training with the Rays in 2020, homered off Jeffrey Springs with two outs in the eighth. The Rays got back to within one when Yandy Diaz opened the eighth with a walk off Zack Britton and scored on a double by Randy Arozarena. They had a chance for more when Lowe singled, but Mike Zunino grounded into an inning-ending double play.

Neither team converted well. The Yankees were 3-for-16 with runners in scoring position and left 11 on. The Rays were 3-for-10 and left nine on. They went home more frustrated.

“We were one hit short a few times,” Lowe said. “Not even a hit. There was a couple situations where we could’ve used a deep fly ball or something, and that’s just how the game works sometimes. Sometimes you just don’t get that hit.”

Not even at the end.

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