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Rangers remind Rays why they are champs in easy win

ST. PETERSBURG — The last time the Texas Rangers were at Tropicana Field, they were just starting a remarkable postseason run that would lead them to the 2023 World Series title.

They returned to the Trop on Monday, and it wasn’t just the shiny, hefty rings that showed they were champions, as they outperformed the Rays in all facets of the game in rolling to a 9-3 win.

The Rays, dropping to 2-3 and under .500 for the first time since April 18, 2022, didn’t play well overall.

Their pitchers continued to have trouble throwing the ball where they want it, walking seven more for a team-record and American League-most total through five games of 26; and they hit two more batters (both by Phil Maton in the ninth). The offense was held to one hit through six innings by former Gator Dane Dunning and five for the night. And the defense had its moments.

“That’s an outstanding team,” said Maton, a free-agent addition from the Astros. “I’m happy we don’t have to face them as much as I did in Houston. You’ve got to be really sharp against these guys because they can really punish you with your best stuff. It’s going to be another team they’re going to have the opportunity to run deep into the postseason.”

The Rays are looking to also be there, aiming to extend their streak of playoff appearances to six. But Monday, granted in Game 5 of a long season, was not much of an encouraging endorsement.

Manager Kevin Cash credited Dunning for throwing well, noting his slider and sinker and how he kept the Rays hitters off balance. But, Cash also said, “I’d like to think that we can have some better at-bats ... going into the seventh when (Richie Palacios and Jose Siri homered) but we didn’t.”

As for a pitching staff that has walked 26 — breaking a mark set by the ignominious 1999 Devil Rays — in allowing 29 runs (for a 5.60 ERA) in 45 innings?

“Overall, we’ve just got to start throwing strikes,” Cash said. “We’re just not doing that. ... I think our entire group is capable of throwing more strikes.”

That started with starter Ryan Pepiot, who walked the first two Rangers and then with two outs gave up a three-run homer to Josh Jung (who later fractured his wrist).

After a spring noted for his improved strike throwing, Pepiot made a mess of his first Rays outing after being acquired from the Dodgers in the Tyler Glasnow trade.

“Obviously getting two free passes to start the game is not what you want to do,” he said. “I tried to battle my way out of it and left a pitch up and Josh Jung hit out pretty far. Obviously you don’t want to be in those situations putting the guys behind pretty early. So just tried to battle my way back the rest of the game.”

Pepiot pitched into the sixth, allowing six runs overall, saying nerves were a factor at the start, as was lack of command of his usually elite changeup.

The offense was shut out by Dunning into the seventh, when Palacios hit a one-out homer, Curtis Mead walked and Siri, whose third-inning hustle double had been their only hit, drilled a two-run shot to left center. Rookie Austin Shenton walked, but Texas reliever David Robertson came on to strike out Rene Pinto and Yandy Diaz.

“It’s a long season,” said Siri, via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “We know there’s 162 games and we’ve just got to keep out there making the adjustments.”

A throwing error on a stolen base gave the Rangers a run in the sixth. And it took a heads-up play by Pepiot to avoid an earlier defensive miscue.

With their infield shifted in the fourth, thee Rays looked to be caught out of position in the fourth when Rangers rookie Wyatt Langford, who last spring was playing at the University of Florida, tried to race home all the way from first on a grounder to third.

He looked like he’d make it as Pinto was up the line covering third, but Pepiot saw what was happening, broke from the mound, grabbed a throw from first baseman Shenton and made a diving tag at the plate.

“I was going for it whether he threw me the ball or not,” Pepiot said. “He got me the ball and I got there just in time. Haven’t had a dirty uniform in a while, but we got the out and saved the run so that’s all that matters.”

The game was ugly to the end for the Rays. With one out and one on, Maton intentionally walked Corey Seager then hit Evan Carter to load the bases and Adolis Garcia to force in a run. After Jung was hit by a pitch he swung at (so ruled a strike) and left the game, Maton walked pinch-hitter Josh Smith to score another run. He said his mechanics were clearly off as he was rushing his delivery.

“The last month, I feel like I’ve done a really good job of refining my delivery, repeating it and executing pitches,” Maton said. “I’ve been doing this for a while now. I can live with giving up runs and all that. But the fastball misses and hitting guys in the hands, that’s unacceptable to me. That’s not something that I’m OK with. And I’ve got be better than that.”

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