Akin shines but Orioles fall short again

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The first two Orioles starters have needed 44 pitches to complete two innings. Veterans who will be permitted later to absorb a heavier workload.

Jordan Lyles followed John Means today and notched a scoreless first on only 10 pitches, with shortstop Jorge Mateo making a sliding backhand stop and throwing to second base for the force. Lyles racked up 34 in the second, allowing three runs but never causing the bullpen to stir.

The game was spliced again into multiple angles. How many innings could Lyles give manager Brandon Hyde? How would the rest be covered? Could the Orioles overcome the deficit?

Five innings. One reliever. And no.

Their first hit off Rays starter Drew Rasmussen was a two-run, opposite-field homer by Ryan Mountcastle in the third, but Francisco Mejía lined a two-run shot to right in the bottom half. Lyles had a tidy seven-pitch inning in the fourth to leave him at 73, enabling him to return for the fifth and throw 10 more.

Hyde was happy to get that much length from Lyles, a stated goal, but they came in a 5-3 loss to the Rays at Tropicana Field.

Tampa Bay has won 14 consecutive games and 20 of 21 against the Orioles, who will try to avoid the sweep on Sunday.

Keegan Akin didn’t allow a run in three innings, striking out three batters, but he’s removed from consideration as the tandem starter with Tyler Wells. The fifth starter on Tuesday night also is a mystery, but Hyde indicated that Akin remains in play.

“Keegan Akin, for me, was the highlight of the day, giving us three really good innings out of the bullpen,” Hyde said. “That’s the best stuff I’ve seen him have since he’s been here, with a mid-90s fastball, he threw some good breaking balls and changeups.”

The aggression is what the Orioles keep preaching to their pitchers. Leave the nibbling to the snack table.

“Trust your stuff, be in the strike zone,” Hyde said. “I thought his off-speed stuff really played today. A lot of lefties took some bad swings on breaking balls. Hopefully, this is a step in the right direction for Keegan.”

Hyde wanted to avoid using his relievers on back-to-back days, with the shortened camp prohibiting him from doing it in exhibition games. Akin surrendered only one hit, Randy Arozarena’s leadoff single in the eighth, which got Félix Bautista warming in the ‘pen.

Hampered by control issues in the past, Akin threw 27 strikes among 31 pitches.

“Just try to attack the zone,” Akin said. “Coming into the game down by three runs, just got to keep the ball in there and hope the offense can pull through at the end and get us some runs.

“It’s huge to get off to a start like that, especially for me coming off last season. It’s kind of a confidence booster to start the season and hopefully take it and run from there.”

Akin was 2-10 with a 6.63 ERA and 1.579 WHIP last year in 24 appearances and allowed five runs with six walks this spring in 5 1/3 innings. He said today’s game was the best he’s felt in the majors.

“Just attacking the zone, keeping it strong,” he said. “Front side has kind of been the focus this year on the mechanics side. So, just keep that and pound the zone.”

The bullpen may be Akin’s comfort zone.

“I liked it, actually, to be honest with you,” he said. “I liked it a lot, so could get used to it.”

Two double plays sped up the last two innings for Lyles. Third baseman Ramón Urías made a diving stop and throw in the fifth, which counted among a handful of defensive gems.

Lyles was charged with five runs and seven hits in five frames, with three walks and two strikeouts. Fifty-two of his 83 pitches were strikes.

“He was leaving some pitches up there in the middle part of the game,” Hyde said. “I thought we played some pretty solid defense behind him. Just the middle of the order got to him a little bit on some pitches that were up, but he did get through five.

“Tough lineup to pitch against. It’s eight left-handers in the lineup against him and he just wasn’t as sharp today as he can be.”

The Rays were three-quarters to the cycle in the second with Josh Lowe’s leadoff triple, Mejía’s RBI single and Kevin Kiermaier’s automatic double. Taylor Walls walked, and another run scored when Mountcastle made a diving stop near the line on Brett Phillips’ ground ball, looked home and took the out at first base.

Brandon Lowe walked and the Rays led 3-0 after Austin Hays made a sliding catch in right field on Wander Franco’s line drive. Ji-Man Choi ran the count full and took a disputed third strike, with plate umpire C.B. Bucknor giving Lyles the high sinker.

The Rays put 10 balls in play against Lyles with exit velocities exceeding 100 mph, a career high.

“A bunch of lefties in the lineup, I couldn’t place the breaking balls in the zone early,” he said. “Just felt like I didn’t really make them respect the breaking balls in the zone. All they were doing was sitting, waiting for my heater, and had to be perfect with it, and most times I wasn’t today. Fell behind, walked a few guys, couple pitches I wish I could have back.

“Mejía in the third, he hit a ball, I threw it exactly where I wanted to, four-seam up, out away, try to get a strikeout with two strikes. He beat me to the spot. I’m not even sure if it was a strike. I think it was out of the zone. Credit to him.”

Lyles said Hyde was going to remove him after the fourth, and the right-hander made a convincing argument to stay.

“I wanted to go back out there again,” Lyles said.

“I’m glad we got at least five so the bullpen didn’t have to carry four. Later on in the season I’m going to dig out a couple more innings here and there. That’s kind of what I like to do, especially with a young staff around me. I want to keep that bullpen as fresh as possible, and look forward to doing that later in the year.”

One day after leadoff hitter Cedric Mullins was nailed on the right elbow with the initial pitch of the game, Santander’s left knee absorbed an 86 mph slider from Drew Rasmussen as he batted with two outs in the first inning. Santander bent at the waist and waited out the pain before heading to first base.

Santander sprained his left ankle last season during an April 20 game in Miami and never seemed to make a full recovery. He was shut down in September with a strained right knee.

The Orioles would like to keep him healthy in 2022.

They’d also like to produce more with runners in scoring position, though Mateo doubled with two outs in the ninth to score Urías from second base. They went 0-for-7 yesterday and 2-for-8 today.

Santander and Trey Mancini singled after Mountcastle’s homer. Santander and Urías singled in the sixth, Mountcastle poked a single into right in the eighth, and Urías led off the ninth with a double and made it home. But the Rays maintained their roll against the Orioles, who have struck out 24 times in the series, tying the club record for most in the first two games of a season.

The Orioles are 0-2 for the first time since 2010.

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