BALTIMORE — The Rays went into Saturday night’s game hoping Jose Alvarado would take advantage of the chance to work in the less-pressurized situation of being the opener and get his wayward pitches straightened out.
Instead, Alvarado made a mess on the mound against the Orioles, retiring only one of the five batters he faced and throwing only nine of his 24 pitches for strikes, and then afterward he complained of an elbow injury that landed him back on the injured list for the second time this season.
“This is unfortunate,’’ manager Kevin Cash said. “It’s been an unfortunate season to date.’’
The whole night ended up unfortunate for the Rays, who lost to the woeful Orioles 7-1. Austin Pruitt had his own issues in following Alvarado, giving up a Pedro Severino grand slam and two other homers, though he did save the bullpen by working 52/3 innings.
The loss dropped the Rays to 76-55 and out of the top AL wild-card spot they had just reclaimed Friday. The Indians won Saturday to go back on top at 76-54, with the Rays in the second spot and the A’s, who lost to the Giants, third at 74-54.
The cause and exact nature of Alvarado’s injury was not clear.
“I felt fine at the beginning of the game. It wasn’t something that was really bothering me much,’’ Alvarado said, via team translator Manny Navarro. “I like to compare it similar to death. It’s something you don’t expect. Injuries just kind of happen, and they just kind of linger.’’
Alvarado said he didn’t feel anything traumatic while throwing but noticed the problem after the game, shortly after one of the athletic trainers checked in with him.
“There was a certain breaking ball that one of trainers asked if everything was okay. He came back and I looked at the video and the pitch was fine, it was a good pitch,'' Alvarado said.”That’s when the asked me if I was doing okay and that’s when we looked (the elbow) over.''
Cash said the staff had no sense of any injury issue for Alvarado until after the game. Nor did he think it was a factor.
“I don’t think the injury had anything to do with (Saturday’s) performance,’’ he said. “I don’t.’’
Alvarado was scheduled to fly back to Tampa today and have an MRI exam Monday, hoping nothing major is wrong. The Rays will activate infielder Joey Wendle from the injured list to take his spot on the roster rather than add another pitcher.
"Because of those injuries that have kind of caused me to struggle a little bit I’ve just got to hope there’s nothing major going on and just hope I can come back and return,'' Alvarado said.
The rough outing and injury are the latest twists in what has been a disappointing and eventful season for Alvarado. He now has a 1-6 record and a 4.80 ERA. He has seven saves in nine chances, and has allowed 29 hits and 27 walks in 30 innings while striking out 39.
Fewer than 59 percent of his pitches had been strikes, according to baseball-reference.com, the lowest mark by a Ray with at least 30 appearances since Grant Balfour was at 59 percent in 2014.
Things look even worse for Alvarado because he started this season so well. Designated the de factor closer and pitching like one, he went 0-2 with four saves, five holds and a 1.04 ERA in 18 games.
But he began to show inconsistencies in mid May, starting with an ugly blown save at Yankee Stadium on May 17. Counting that game, he went 0-2, converting two of four save chances and posting a 9.00 ERA over eight outings.
Then he left the team to go to Venezuela for what were said to be personal reasons. He was gone a month, saying when he returned that he had been attending to his mother, who had been ill but had recovered.
The month away seemed to matter. Alvarado he didn’t look to be in the best shape when he returned, and he didn’t pitch well.
“When he had to go home, that certainly didn’t help,’’ Cash said. “I know there were some struggles before that, but this game is tough, hitting, pitching, whatever it is. Basically a month without that competitive environment, it’s going to be real tough to flip a switch and get it back on.”
Worse, Alvarado pulled an oblique muscle in his fourth game back and missed another five weeks, returning Aug. 13. And he hasn’t been sharp since.
"I felt a little pain (Saturday) after that outing,'' he said. "I didn’t expect it. But the way this season is going it’s just another thing that’s been happening. From this point on just got to work, try to get better.''
The Rays were hoping to see that Saturday.
Instead, he was even worse.
Alvarado faced five Baltimore batters, starting each with a ball, and retired only one.
He threw 24 pitches and just nine for strikes, one of them hit for a single.
He allowed one run, on one of the two wild pitches he threw.
He was so erratic that Cash didn’t let him finish the fifth at-bat, pulling him when the count went to 3-0 on D.J. Stewart with runners on second and third, and Cash was blunt about why.
“(Alvarado) had no chance to throw the ball over the plate at that point, and (I) didn’t want another run to come in from a wild pitch,’’ Cash said.
What did Alvarado think of Cash taking him out then?
"In this business and in this game, I’ve matured a lot, especially in this organization, the only organization I’ve been with,'' Alvarado said.
"One of the most important things I’ve learned is body language. Very easily could have been upset, could have thrown things. But I know it’s part of the game, and I know I’ve got to control those emotions. I like being out there, I like to compete for my team and for the fans but it’s just the way the game goes.''
Knowing how much of a weapon a lefty with a fastball averaging more than 98 mph can be, the Rays have tried whatever they could to get Alvarado back on track.
“We’re a better team when Josie is throwing the ball well and, obviously, healthy now,” Cash said. “We’re a better team. We’ve seen how he can contribute and really impact the back end of our bullpen.’’
It seemed like a good plan for Alvarado.
It turned out to be another bad night.
Contact Marc Topkin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.