Rays fall flat as Josh Fleming struggles in ugly loss to Braves

ATLANTA — There were a couple of troubling ways to measure how miserable the Rays’ 9-0 loss to the Braves was Saturday night.

First, that the Rays got only one more hit for the game — four — than Braves pitcher Max Fried did, the most damaging after Tampa Bay intentionally walked the hitter ahead of him.

Another, that the Rays had catcher Francisco Mejia pitch the final inning, the first time he had ever taken the mound at any level.

But most telling was the performance of Rays starter Josh Fleming, who zipped through the first three innings relatively unscathed, then fell apart in the fourth, allowing six runs on five hits — including three doubles and a homer — in a nine-batter mess.

“Just throw this one behind me and move on to the next,’' Fleming said.

That’s about all the Rays could say, and do, after following up one of their most hard-fought wins of the season on Friday in the post-All-Star break opener with one of their most-lopsided, and least-competitive, defeats.

The loss dropped the Rays to 54-38, and potentially 2½ games behind the American League East-leading Red Sox, who played late against the Yankees.

Fleming, who stuck around long enough to allow a seventh run on a homer to Freddie Freeman in the fifth, said the biggest issue was “inconsistency” with his sinker, a pitch he typically uses to induce ground balls and soft contact. But he was leaving it up, and over the plate, at times.

“I don’t know what it was,’' he said. “I think every other pitch I felt good throwing. For some reason, the sinker just — I don’t know if it wasn’t sinking, I don’t know. Just was inconsistent with it. There were some that I threw that did exactly what I wanted to do, and some just — I guess I cut it off too short or something and grooved it over the plate.’'

Mejia saw it the same way from behind the plate.

“His sinker was working really well at the beginning of the game, then it just kind of fell off toward the end there,’' he said via team interpreter Manny Navarro

“We had a game plan, and the game plan was to go in, and we were sticking to the game plan … in the first three innings. Then after that, it just kind of fell off a little bit and the pitches weren’t made that were supposed to be made.’'

After Fleming opened the fourth allowing a leadoff single to Freeman, Ozzie Albies drove a ball — to Fleming’s surprise — over the head of centerfielder Brett Phillips, who misplayed the carom. Freeman scored on the hit, Albies took third on the error and scored on a sac fly. Fleming got another out, then gave up a double to Guillermo Heredia that landed just inside the rightfield line.

Manager Kevin Cash then made an interesting decision, intentionally walking light-hitting catcher Kevan Smith, the former Ray, to bring up Fried, figuring “we’ll take our chances” with the pitcher hitting.

Braves manager Brian Snitker suggested afterward that Fried is a good enough hitter that it might have been a bad idea, as it might’ve gotten him fired up. “That’s a tough call, to walk somebody to get to Max,” Snitker said. “I feel real good anytime Max is up there.”

He had reason to, as Fried, hitting .250 (6-for-24) coming in, laced a double to left that scored two, the second of his career-high three hits in a game.

Fried, for what it’s worth, said the intentional walk happened so quickly that he didn’t have time to get worked up. “I didn’t really have time to really think’' he said. “I just tried to get up there and see a pitch and hit it. There wasn’t a lot of thought behind it.”

Newly acquired outfielder Joc Pederson extended the lead to 6-0 with a two-run homer, matching the biggest inning the Rays had allowed all season.

Fleming’s recent performances might amplify the Rays’ need to add a pitcher by the July 30 trade deadline. Though effective pitching behind an opener (5-1, 2.88), the second-year lefty is 2-4, 4.85 in seven starts, allowing at least five runs in each of his past three.

The issue?

“I don’t know. I really have no clue, to be honest with you,’' Fleming said. “I know when I’ve been starting, I’ve been throwing a lot of strikes. And I think there comes a point where it’s very possible to throw too many strikes. And my last three starts, I think I’ve thrown too many strikes.

“Instead of trying to pick corners when I get two strikes or whatever it is, I’ve been getting hurt a lot just grooving fastballs and stuff like that. So got to get better at locating a little bit more.’'

Having used relievers J.P. Feyereisen and Jeffrey Springs to get through seven, and mindful of playing 10 straight days out of the All-Star break, Cash asked Mejia to pitch the eighth. And the backup catcher did well, allowing one hit in a seven-pitch inning, with two pitches clocking in under 50 mph.

“The manager came up to me and asked if I have ever pitched, and I said no, but I’ll be willing to pitch,’' Mejia said. “I told him I could throw strikes, so I went up there and threw strikes.”

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