Rays sustain a painful late loss to Twins

MINNEAPOLIS —Things seemed to be going the Rays’ way on Tuesday.

They had a lead over the Twins, thanks to a couple of key hits and another strong start by Zack Littell. And the Orioles, whom they are trying to chase down for the American League East lead, lost to the lowly Cardinals, giving the Rays a chance to draw within two games ahead of a four-game series that starts Thursday.

But then they got a bad bounce.

Yandy Diaz, their most consistent hitter and most valuable player, fouled off a pitch during a fifth-inning at-bat that struck him in the groin area, causing obvious pain and forcing him from the game with an official diagnosis of “a testicular contusion,” though he is not expected to be out long.

And then they got a bad break.

Littell, delivering another otherwise overall strong outing, gave up the lead in the seventh, allowing a one-out single to Max Kepler and then a two-out home run to Willi Castro on a good pitch that gave the Twins a 3-2 lead which held up.

The result was a bad day, as the Rays wasted a rare chance to gain ground on the Orioles, dropping to 89-57 and remaining three games back with 16 to play.

“It sucks,” Littell said. “I thought I made a (good) pitch (a 90-mph slider). He put a really good swing on it. I went back and looked really briefly, I think (the pitch) was below the zone.

“Those things are going to happen. Obviously, it sucks. It sucks for it to happen there, to lose the lead there in the seventh. It’s one of those that I might lose sleep over tonight, but coming in tomorrow, just know that overall, it was a good effort and take it into next week.”

Diaz was batting with the Rays leading 2-1 in the fifth when he fouled off a 1-2 pitch that struck him in a sensitive spot. He spent several minutes trying to recover, awkwardly in front of thousands of fans and TV cameras, and was able to finish the at-bat. He grounded back to the mound and ran — at less than full speed — to first. When the inning ended, he was taken out of the game.

Rays manager Kevin Cash said Diaz was considered day to day, but seemed OK and there was a chance he could be in the lineup for Wednesday’s matinee series finale. “I think he should be fine,” Cash said.

Diaz, understandably, was not available for comment.

The loss was not all on Littell, who also allowed a solo homer in the third. The Rays hitters weren’t able to do much against Joe Ryan, their former top starting prospect who was traded to Minnesota in July 2021 in the Nelson Cruz deal, or the three relievers who followed.

“We’re pretty familiar with him, playing with him in the minor leagues and at the (2020) alternate site, so I knew what to expect,” Josh Lowe said. “But yeah, credit to him. He made the adjustment tonight. … He beared down for a little bit and their bullpen came in and made some good pitches.”

The Rays got one run in the fourth, when Brandon Lowe doubled for their first hit, and scored on a sharp liner by Josh Lowe that went off the glove of shortstop Carlos Correa. They got another in the fifth when Rene Pinto, continuing his surprising power show, homered for the fourth time in seven games, leading to Ryan’s departure three batters later.

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“Joe Ryan was really, really tough,” Cash said.

“He had a good fastball going. I don’t think we ever made the adjustment. The good thing that we did is that we kind of drove his pitch count up to get him out of the game a little earlier, but their bullpen came in and did a heck of a job. Rene hits a home run and other than that we didn’t have much to show for it.”

Ryan said facing the Rays for the first time wasn’t the event he thought it might be.

“I thought I might have more emotions or be more excited about it,” he said. “I think if it was right when I got called up, or last year even, it would feel different. There’s only a couple guys I still know over there. The turnover is pretty drastic, I think.

“Definitely cool to see some of those guys up there. It honestly was more almost relaxing than like, I want to strike this guy out or do something here. It was cool. Finally got to face them, so it was good. Just wish I could have gone a little deeper in the game.”

Cash said he felt for Littell ending up with a loss after such a strong outing, scattering five hits, striking out eight and walking none while throwing 85 pitches, an impressive follow-up to his last outing, when he threw a career-high eight innings against the Mariners on Thursday, but came out on the wrong end of a 1-0 result.

“He was awesome,” Cash said.

“Pretty unfortunate the way it ended for him. I feel bad for him. Even the pitch Castro hit was probably a ball, two balls below the zone. He went down and got it, put a good swing on it. I could not be more impressed with the way Zack has thrown the ball, continues to throw the ball. He backed up his best start with another, you could argue, just as good.”

It just wasn’t the Rays’ day.

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