With Zach Eflin down, challenges emerge

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Just when the Tampa Bay Rays received strong news on the medical front, the revolving door captured another.

With infielder Brandon Lowe and starting pitcher Ryan Pepiot ready to return to the diamond, Zach Eflin, considered the titular head of the starting rotation, exited earlier this week into the trainers’ room. While three Rays starters, Jeffrey Springs, Shane McClanahan, and Drew Rasmussen all recovering from Tommy John surgery and Pepiot down for several starts due to a line drive off his right shin, the loss of Eflin complicates matters.

During his last start at Toronto last Saturday, Eflin told reporters before Monday’s game, he felt pain in his lower back. Despite going six innings, he surrounded four runs to the Jays and left after throwing 75 pitches. For the season, the 30-year-old native of Orlando is 3-4 with a 4.12 ERA in 10 starts.

As a result of the back flare-up, the Rays placed Eflin on the IR and he is expected to miss 2-4 weeks.

“Doesn’t feel great but should be clearing up in the next four or five days,” Eflin said prior to the recent Boston series at Tropicana Field. “This happened last year, and I was out then for about eight days. I’m thinking this will not be too long after that.”

With a principal member of the rotation down and patience during the recovery period for the three potential starters, the rotation is likely shifted. At this point, manager Kevin Cash has not named a replacement for Eflin,

At this point, the Rays’ rotation appears in a bit of a flux. With Eflin down and Ryan Pepiot coming off the IR to start Wednesday in the series finale against Boston, Cash also must deal with inconsistencies from Aaron Civale and whether to keep running long reliever Tyler Alexander out every five days as a spot starter.

“The rotation is fine, and we talked about that the other day,” said Zack Littell after a no-decision against the Red Sox in the middle game of the current three-game set. “We’ve done that the past year, two years because the Rays have a history of the next-man-up mentality. It will be nice to get (Pepiot) back, and it obviously hurts not having Eflin in there. He brings that leadership and an extremely consistent presence. I don’t think anyone in here is panicking.”

While the Rays are down a significant starter, pitching coach Kyle Synder could work some magic. As a mentor and teacher, Synder and his development staff have a reputation for productivity and success. That was noted from afar.

Lefthander Richrd Lovelady, acquired from the Cubs on May 18, arrived in the clubhouse before the Boston series and told reporters of Synder’s reputation for development. That immediately placed Lovelady a lefthander, in a comfort one and a likely replacement for lefty reliever Colin Porche, who continues rehabbing from back tightness.

“All you hear about is how well the Rays’ organization is able to develop pitchers,” Lovelady said the first day wearing the Rays’ starburst logo on the left side of his uniform. “I’m excited and ready to roll.”

Mastery over the Red Sox? … coming into a three-game series with Boston on May 20, the Rays were 22-4 against the Sox at home. That dates back to June 23, 2021, and outscored Boston by 52 runs (130-58). During this period, the Rays captured a franchise-best 13 straight victories and a fact which does not elude Alex Cora, the Sox skipper.

“The last time we played well was in 2021,” Cora said before Monday’s series opener. “We haven’t played well and there have been some weird games. They have been playing better baseball than us. Look, we played well at home (in four against the Rays at Fenway Park last week), and we just didn’t win the series. There were two extra-inning games, and we won one. Just come here and do the things we did pitching-wise and swing the bats.”

At least for this series, the ghosts of the past appear neutralized. Claiming 5-0 and 5-2 victories in the opening two games of the series, Cora noted, “we were more athletic. To come here, the turf, and there is a reason why (the Rays) win ball games. Guess we can check off a few for us now.”

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