KC Royals vs. Tampa Bay: Rays aren’t dominating

(Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)
(Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports) /

What can the KC Royals expect when they open a series with Tampa Bay tonight?

The KC Royals are 9-5 and lead the American League Central after just beating Toronto three out of four games. The Tampa Bay Rays, Kansas City’s opponents in a three-game series beginning tonight at Kauffman Stadium, had to win three of their last four simply to get to .500.

On their 8-8 record alone, the Rays aren’t the kings of the American League they were last year. Tampa had the second best record (40-20) in the majors, an effort second only to the Dodgers (43-17), who just happened to defeat the Rays in the World Series.

Some might discount Tampa Bay’s 2020 record as the fortuitous byproduct of baseball’s modified schedule (Tampa played only teams in the AL and NL East divisions) but when a team wins twice as many big league games as it loses, it’s accomplished something special.

Things aren’t the same this season. The Rays are getting better, winning three in a row and six of their last 10, but haven’t closely resembled what they were in 2020. Doing what the Rays typically do in the offseason probably accounts for part of the difference—they tried to save money.

Among the casualties were key starting pitchers Blake Snell and Charlie Morton. The Rays traded Snell and the $39 million remaining on his contract to the Padres in December; Snell won 21 games and the AL Cy Young award in 2018, and went 4-2 with a 3.24 ERA last season. And before offloading Snell, the Rays declined Charlie Morton’s option after the veteran righty went 18-8 for them over the past two campaigns.

The team also didn’t re-sign power-hitter Hunter Renfroe after his only season with the club.

To help offset those losses, Tampa acquired veteran hurlers Rich Hill (and his nagging blisters), Michael Wacha, Chris Archer and Collin McHugh. Hill is 1-0, 7.53 in three starts (he’s surrendered 12 runs in 14.1 innings), Wacha is 1-1, 4.20 and has 20 strikeouts in 15 frames, Archer is 0-1, 6.23 but recently landed on the Injured List with right forearm tightness, and McHugh is 0-1, 10.13.

On the other hand, right fielder Randy Arozarena is back, but starting slowly. He hit seven home runs and had 11 RBIs and a .281/.382/.641 line in 23 games in his first Tampa season last year, and set major league postseason records with 10 homers and 29 hits. Still officially a rookie, he’s hitting only .246 with two homers and six RBIs.

Who’s hot, and who’s not, for the Rays as they prepare to face the KC Royals?

Only two Rays who play at least semi-regularly are batting above .300—third baseman Joey Wendle is hitting .340 with three homers and 11 RBIs after going 6-for-12 against the Yankees over the weekend, and catcher Francisco Mejia is at .333 with five runs driven in. Outfielder Austin Meadows shares the club home run lead with Wendle after breaking through with 33 two seasons ago and hitting four in 36 games in 2020.

Leading the starting rotation is Tyler Glasnow. The righthander struck out seven in five innings and held the Yankees to two hits Saturday to improve to 2-0 with an 0.73 ERA; fortunately for the Royals, he probably won’t pitch against them this week. (Besides Glasnow, Wacha, Hill, and Josh Fleming, the Rays have used Ryan Yarbrough, who’s lost twice in three starts, in the rotation).

Outfielder and former Kansas City fan favorite Brett Phillips, the hero of Game 4 of last year’s World Series, started the season on the IL and is struggling at the plate (.105 in nine games). Four other Rays’ regulars are also hitting under .200: catcher Mike Zunino (.176), second baseman Brandon Lowe (.176), shortstop Willy Adames (.180), and DH Yoshi Tsutsugo (.163).

Tampa’s team average is .220.

How will Tampa manager Kevin Cash assemble his lineup against the KC Royals?

Kevin Cash, 2020’s hands-down AL Manager of the Year, is in his seventh year at the Rays’ helm and is 462-424. Last season’s AL pennant and East Division title were Tampa’s first under Cash.

Cash will put together his batting order from these probable starters:

C: Mike Zunino (.176/.263/.412, 2 HR, 6 RBI)

1B: Yandy Diaz (.286/.417/.327, 0 HR, 6 RBI)

2B: Brandon Lowe (.176/.311/.294, 1 HR, 6 RBI) or Mike Brosseau (.250/.294/.438, 1 HR, 4 RBI)

SS: Willy Adames (.180/.212/.360, 2 HR, 4 RBI)

3B: Joey Wendle (.340/.365/.600, 3 HR, 11 RBI)

LF: Austin Meadows (.193/.352/.404), 3 HR, 4 RBI)

CF: Manuel Margot (.261/.314/.478, 2 HR, 8 RBI) or Brett Phillips (.105/.217/.211, 0 HR, 1 RBI)

RF: Randy Arozarena (.246/.317/.386, 2 HR, 6 RBI)

DH: Yoshi Tsutsugo (.163/.217/.209, 0 HR, 2 RBI)

Who are the likely starting pitchers in this series?

Lefthanders Josh Fleming (0-1, 1.80) and Danny Duffy draw the starting assignments for tonight’s Rays-Royals series opener. While Tampa hadn’t officially announced its Game 2 and 3 starters as of late Sunday, Brad Keller (1-1, 9.58) and Jakob Junis (1-0, 1.50) will follow Duffy Tuesday and Wednesday nights for Kansas City.

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The KC Royals and Tampa Bay begin a three-game set tonight at The K. First pitch is scheduled for 7:10 p.m. CDT for all three games. Kansas City will take Thursday off before beginning a three-city, nine-game road trip Friday with stops in Detroit, Pittsburgh and Minnesota.