Yandy Díaz is a strong man. After all, he’s got to be since he’s carrying the Rays’ offense on his back. (Photo Credit: Tampa Bay Rays)

After a deflating series loss in Kansas City, the Tampa Bay Rays look for better fortunes in Charm City, where they will start a four-game series against the Orioles on Monday. Baltimore dropped two of three to the Yankees over the weekend.

At 52-43 on the season, the Rays enter play nine games over .500, holding on to the second AL Wildcard spot by 1.5 games over the Red Sox.

The Rays headed into the All-Star Break with a full head of steam, so to speak, having won six of their last seven games. Yet, the injury bug (and/or the Orioles) nipped at their heels once again, landing Tampa Bay’s most consistent hitter, Harold Ramirez, on the 15-Day Injured List with a broken thumb. His absence was noticeable in Kansas City, where the Rays dropped two of three to the lowly Royals — a team whose pitching staff continued to outperform its season numbers, and limited Tampa Bay to just five runs total in games two and three of the series. And while the Rays have the depth to navigate this wave of injuries, it is of the hit-or-miss quality — both literally and figuratively, since the Rays struck out 26 times from Friday to Sunday (and 13 times on Saturday) — as that depth could not do much in the final two games of the series.

While the safe assumption would be that, given the strengths and weaknesses of the team, Kevin Cash would put the best possible lineup on the field day in and day out. However, that assumption proved false on Sunday. Neither Francisco Mejía (232 wRC+ over the last seven days) nor Ji-Man Choi (who, in all fairness is mired in a mini-slump over the last week of play) appeared in the lineup, with the Rays’ skipper opting to go with Luke Raley and Christian Bethancourt (51 wRC+ over the last week of play) instead. Credit where it’s due, at least Raley worked a pair of walks on Sunday and has driven in two runs in his last eight plate appearances. Yet, he also has just one hit (a single) in his last five at-bats, and he came up with a clutch groundout with Randy Arozarena on second in the eighth inning of the series finale. Personally, I’d have bet on Choi.

Granted there was no certainty that Choi would have driven in a run in a pinch-hit situation. But, given that he’s slashing .380 BA/.465 OBP/.592 SLG/1.057 OPS with a 200 wRC+ across 71 at-bats with men in scoring position, I’d gladly take my chances on the first baseman. Nevertheless, Cash’s risk/reward assessment of the situation means that we’ll never know what could have happened with a runner on second in a one-run game, rather only what did happen — an inning-ending groundout.

That’s just one scenario of a few over the weekend. While this wasn’t a do-or-die game by any stretch, the poor string pulling resulted in a series loss against a very beatable team. At the end of the day, the Rays underperformed against a team that is overperforming. There’s no room for shenanigans of the sort against an AL East rival.

On the other side of the field, it’s been years since the Orioles have been relevant in the AL East, but it appears that they are once again a viable threat in the division. Baltimore won 10 consecutive games before they ran into the Rays before the break and now sit just one game below .500 for the season and just 3.5 games out of a Wildcard spot.

Baltimore has been a much better home team than a road team this season and those numbers are evident, particularly on the mound. The Orioles have a solid 3.46 ERA as a team at home this season, having allowed just 390 hits in 416 innings at Camden Yards this season. Both teams have performed similarly over the last seven days, with the Orioles performing 7% better than the Rays as it relates to wRC+ (138 vs 131). And while Tampa Bay is 7-5 against Baltimore this season, they are just 2-4 outside of the Trop. Every loss against Baltimore this season have been by one or two runs, and three of the five have been in extra innings.

Pitching Probables

Over the next four days, Kevin Cash will turn to Corey Kluber (6-5, 3.73), Shane McClanahan (10-3, 1.71 ERA), Drew Rasmussen (6-3, 3.13 ERA), and Ryan Yarbrough (0-5, 5.61 ERA). Brandon Hyde will counter with Austin Voth (1-1, 6.38 ERA), Spenser Watkins (3-1, 3.93 ERA), Tyler Wells (7-6, 3.69 ERA), and Jordan Lyles (6-8, 4.79 ERA).

Corey Kluber Struck out three across six innings while allowing four runs on eight hits, a walk, and a hit batsman against the Orioles before the break. After holding Baltimore scoreless through three innings, Kluber struggled in the fourth and gave up two runs on four hits. In the sixth, Rougned Odor tagged Kluber for a two-run homer with two outs to make it a 6-4 game. He came out after throwing 83 pitches (58 strikes, 70% strike rate). Coming off three injury-riddled seasons, the Rays have been hesitant to overwork the veteran, and it has paid off as he’s compiled a 3.73 ERA and a 3.44 FIP, with a 5.47 K/BB, and a 1.12 WHIP through 94 innings. He is 1-1 with a 3.66 ERA in four starts against the Orioles this season.

Austin Voth allowed two runs on four hits and no walks while striking out six across five innings against the Angels. Voth made his fifth start of the season and was rewarded with his first win as the Orioles put up eight runs between the fourth and fifth innings. On the season, he’s posted a 6.38 ERA and a 3.95 FIP, with a 3.15 K/BB, and a 1.63 WHIP through 42.1 innings. He is 0-0 with a 0.00 ERA in two outings (one start) against Tampa Bay this season. Key Matchups: Brandon Lowe (1-2, 2B, 2 BB), Brett Phillips (1-1), Taylor Walls (1-2, 2B)

Shane McClanahan hurled 6.1 innings of one run on ball against the Red Sox before the break, allowing three hits and no walks while striking out six. McClanahan was quite efficient in the outing, throwing 57 of 85 pitches for strikes (67% strike rate). His only troublesome inning was the fifth, when he allowed the first two batters to reach base via singles. However, McClanahan minimized the damage, coaxing a 5-4-3 twin killing out of Christian Vazquez, as Bogaerts scored to make it a two-run game. The latter single was the last base runner against McClanahan, as he retired the final six batters he faced. McClanahan lowered his season ERA to 1.71 (with a 2.40 FIP) with the dominant outing, and that mark now ranks first in the majors following a rare poor outing by the previous leader, Tony Gonsolin, on the same night. McClanahan also leads the league with a 0.80 WHIP and 147 strikeouts, with a 7.74 K/BB. He is 0-0 with a 0.00 ERA in one start (4.1 innings) against Baltimore this season.

Spenser Watkins allowed one run on four hits and two walks over five innings against the Cubs. He struck out five. Watkins allowed leadoff baserunners in the third and fourth innings but was able to escape both jams without giving up a run. However, he surrendered his first run of the game in the fifth inning following a triple from Christopher Morel and a sacrifice fly by Rafael Ortega. Over his last four starts, Watkins has given up just three earned runs across 22.2 innings while sporting a 3.4 K/BB over that stretch. He finished the first half of the 2022 campaign with a solid 3.93 ERA and a 4.49 FIP, with a 1.37 WHIP, and a 1.55 K/BB over 52.2 innings. The last time he faced the Rays, Watkins exited the game after being struck by a line drive off the bat of Ji-Man Choi in the first inning. Key Matchups: Randy Arozarena (5-8, 2B, 2 RBI, BB), Ji-Man Choi (3-5, 3 RBI, BB), Brandon Lowe (3-10, 2 2B, RBI, BB), Francisco Mejía (2-3, 2B), Brett Phillips (1-4, 2B, RBI)

Drew Rasmussen got the start Friday and gave up one earned run on seven hits and a walk while striking out four over five innings. Rasmussen looked good in his first start back after the All-Star Break, holding the Royals to only one run over five innings of work on 94 pitches (55 strikes, 59% strike rate). He has been solid since coming back from a hamstring injury at the beginning of July, boasting a 2.29 ERA in four starts this month. The 26-year-old right-hander has excellent spin on his fastball and opponents are only hitting .228 on his heater so far this season. All told, the right-hander maintains a 3.13 ERA and 3.64 FIP, with a 1.18 WHIP, and a 3.00 K/BB across 77.2 innings. He is 0-0 with a 4.50 ERA in one start against Baltimore this season.

Tyler Wells allowed five earned runs on five hits and two walks while striking out four across five innings against the Yankees on Friday. Four of the five runs that Wells surrendered came from a pair of long balls by Aaron Judge. While the homers sunk his outing, it marked only the second time this season that he’s been taken deep multiple times in a start. Overall, Wells maintains a 3.69 ERA and a 4.29 FIP, with a 2.74 K/BB, and a 1.10 WHIP across 90.1 innings. He is 0-2 with a 7.50 ERA in three starts against the Rays this season. Key Matchups: Yu Chang (2-3, 2 2B, 2 RBI), Brandon Lowe (2-4, HR, 2 RBI), Josh Lowe (2-3, 2B, BB)

Ryan Yarbrough practically mirrored Luis Patiño on Saturday, completing 4.0 innings and allowing three runs on six hits and three walks while striking out two on 74 pitches (45 strikes, 61% strike rate). The Rays tied the game at three apiece in the seventh inning, yet Michael A. Taylor and Bobby Witt Jr. went deep off Yarbrough, who before the eighth had thrown three scoreless frames in relief. Taylor, who did not start the game, hit a solo shot to left with one out, putting the Royals ahead by a run, while Witt’s two-run shot for the final margin came with two outs, scoring Nicky Lopez, who reached on an infield hit. The left-hander now maintains a 5.61 ERA and a 5.33 FIP, with a 1.52 WHIP and a 2.00 K/BB across 43.1 big-league innings this season. He is 0-0 with a 2.89 ERA in two outings (one start) against the Orioles this season.

Jordan Lyles allowed three runs on eight hits and two walks over five innings against the Yankees. He struck out two. Lyles surrendered single tallies during the first, second, and fourth innings and generated only two swinging strikes on 99 total pitches, although he was able to keep Baltimore within striking distance. The right-hander delivered three consecutive quality starts to begin June but has surrendered nine runs over 7.2 frames in his past two turns. Overall Lyles has a 4.79 ERA and a 4.44 FIP, with a 1.45 WHIP, and a 2.58 K/BB across 112.2 innings (20 starts). He is 0-2 with a 12.91 ERA in two starts against the Rays this season. Key Matchups: Randy Arozarena (2-8, HR, RBI), Christian Bethancourt (1-2), Ji-Man Choi (1-2, BB), Brandon Lowe (2-7, 2 2B, BB), Josh Lowe (3-5, 2B, 3B, RBI), Francisco Mejía (3-5, HR, 3 RBI), Brett Phillips (2-5, HR, 4 RBI, BB)