Defense, bullpen make a mess in Rays’ 7-4 loss to Braves

The Tampa Bay Rays' Willey Adames, left, steals third base past Atlanta Braves infielder Austin Riley during the fifth inning on Wednesday, July 29, 2020, at Truist Park in Atlanta. The Braves won, 7-4. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)
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By Marc Topkin Tampa Bay Times (TNS)

ATLANTA — The Rays knew Wednesday was going to be odd logistically.

They were traveling for the first time amid myriad coronavirus precautions and protocols, which included making the hour-long flight to Atlanta on Wednesday morning rather than the night before, wearing masks on the plane and buses, and walking into the Truist Park visiting clubhouse last used by the COVID-19-infected Marlins.

“A little bit strange,” infielder Joey Wendle said before the game. “But I think we were all kind of expecting that going into the travel day.”

What they couldn’t have expected were two strengths of their team, their defense and bullpen, faltering badly in a 7-4 loss to the Braves, spoiling what had been a majors-best and franchise-record-tying 4-1 start.

One mistake over five solid innings by starter Charlie Morton — a third-inning homer by Freddie Freeman — put the Rays down two runs. But they came back strong, getting one on a throwing error by ex-mate Travis d’Arnaud — now the Braves’, catcher — in the fifth, then three more in an impressive sixth, with back-to-back two-out, run-scoring hits by Kevin Kiermaier and Hunter Renfroe.

The 4-2 lead seemed to be in good hands the way the Rays bullpen had pitched.

But Andrew Kittredge got them off to a bad start, allowing consecutive doubles. And Oliver Drake made it worse, starting with a walk to No. 9 hitter Ender Inciarte, then two-out, run-scoring hits to Ozzie Albies and Freeman, who had four hits on the night.

Kiermaier made a strong throw to third to nail Albies to end that inning. That was after an even better play in the first, when he raced over to rightfield, chased down a ball that eluded Renfroe and fired to second baseman Brandon Lowe, whose relay nailed Ronald Acuna Jr. at the plate.

The Rays had won four straight after an opening-day loss, their 4-1 record entering Wednesday matching the best in the majors and the best five-game start in franchise history.

Morton started for the Rays and gave them a better outing than they expected after a tough opening day. He went five innings, allowing the two-run homer to Freeman but not much else — six hits and a walk total, seven strikeouts, with 55 of 80 pitches for strikes.

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