Slumping Rays are down but definitely not out

In their first 12 seasons, the Rays owned the majors’ best record for just more than a month. Total. Those losing ways are history, of course. Tampa Bay has been one of the majors’ top teams for going on three seasons.

Wade Davis hasn't won a game in June.
Wade Davis hasn’t won a game in June.

This season, in fact, the Rays had the majors’ best record for more than two months. Behind a strong rotation and the majors’ most athletic lineup, the Rays soared to 20 games over .500 on May 23 while building their lead to six games in baseball’s toughest division.

A month later, the Rays have been grounded. They have been caught not only by the Yankees but also by those other bullies in Boston. What’s going on? Glad you asked.

The pitching
The Rays own the AL’s best ERA but they won’t for much longer if the rotation continues to falter. Tampa Bay’s starters have posted a 5.76 ERA during the club’s 10-16 skid, after posting a major league-best 2.72 ERA through 44 games.

Rookie Wade Davis has led the struggles. Unable to locate his fastball, he walked five Padres and fell to 0-4 in four June starts in a 2-1 loss Tuesday night.

"Four and a third (innings) and 103 pitches," Rays manager Joe Maddon pointed out. "We have to do better than that. He’s got to reign in command of his fastball. We’ve talked about it all year."

Davis has had company. James Shields, the senior member of the rotation at 28, has lost five consecutive starts (he earned a win in relief Saturday), and Matt Garza has allowed 15 runs in his past three starts.

Only David Price and Jeff Niemann have managed to avoid a rough stretch.

The hitting
Theirs has been an erratic attack all season. Carlos Pena, the primary cleanup hitter, has a .198 batting average but 15 homers. B.J. Upton still is underachieving at .226/.316/.391. An All-Star last year, Jason Bartlett is at .232. The club hit .299 with runners in scoring position through their hot start but only .224 since. In the long season, such a disparity can be expected to eventually even out.

B.J. Upton has struggled at the plate.
B.J. Upton has struggled at the plate.

"We need to regain the game of inches," Maddon said after a rally on Tuesday night was snuffed when a line drive hit baserunner John Jaso, preventing a first-and-third situation with the middle of the order coming up. "It’s one of those freaky moments that happen to everybody."

But with a lineup stocked with All-Stars, scoring hasn’t been much of a problem. The Rays still are tied for third in runs scored. Carl Crawford has been hot lately, Ben Zobrist has hit his stride and Evan Longoria has carried them all season.

The fans
OK, the Rays can’t blame their slump on a lack of support because they are used to playing inside of an echoing dome mostly full with empty seats. But the club has started to make its own noise about it.

Owner Stuart Sternberg held a news conference earlier this week to fire the first warning. As subtle as he was in saying that the club needs to explore potential stadium sites outside of St. Petersburg, his message was clear: If the situation doesn’t improve, there will be some kind of move long before the club’s lease at the Tropicana Field expires in 2027.

"The facts are too persuasive to ignore," Sternberg said at the news conference. "Baseball will not work long term in downtown St. Petersburg."

Though the club is winning and playing as entertaining a brand of ball as any team, about the only times it draws 20,000 fans are when the Yankees, Red Sox or Barenaked Ladies visit. As a result of the lack of support, the Rays likely won’t be linked to any of the big-name players who will be available before the nonwaiver trading deadline. 

If a team is a contender and no one's around to see it ... ?
If a team is a contender and no one’s around to see it … ?

The division
As the Rays roared through the first six weeks, the Red Sox dealt with injury and pitching woes to the point that they were teetering on a lost season. The turnaround for both teams began when Boston swept three games in Tampa Bay in the last week of May.

Just like that it seems, the Red Sox are back in their accustomed spot of contending. No one in Tampa Bay is surprised. "You’re just waiting for them to get their stuff together and they have," Maddon says. "We’re almost at the All-Star break."

The Rays have plenty of chances to pay back the Red Sox. Beginning with a two-game set at Fenway Park next week, 11 of the Rays’ 18 dates with the Red Sox remain. Tampa Bay also has 13 games left with the Yankees on a schedule that continues to draw Maddon’s criticism.

"Playing four teams 80 times in a season is ridiculous," says the manager, in a slight exaggeration (they actually play each division rival 18 times, not 20). "I would prefer a more balanced schedule."

In such a deep division, Maddon knows the significance of a strong start. In 2008, the Rays vaulted into contention early and went all the way to the World Series. In ’09, they weren’t able to overcome their 9-14 April.

"When you don’t get off to a good start in this division, that’s when you can get buried," Maddon says. "We got the wonderful start but we’ve been scuffling a bit as of late. That’s going to happen. I really was pushing for a good start knowing something like this would eventually happen."

Indeed the Rays’ heads remain way above water. Getting them back to the top, however, will not be easy.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

Sponsored link: Rays tickets available

In their first 12 seasons, the Rays owned the majors’ best record for just more than a month. Total. Those losing ways are history, of course. Tampa Bay has been one of the majors’ top teams for going on three seasons.

Wade Davis hasn't won a game in June.
Wade Davis hasn’t won a game in June.

This season, in fact, the Rays had the majors’ best record for more than two months. Behind a strong rotation and the majors’ most athletic lineup, the Rays soared to 20 games over .500 on May 23 while building their lead to six games in baseball’s toughest division.

A month later, the Rays have been grounded. They have been caught not only by the Yankees but also by those other bullies in Boston. What’s going on? Glad you asked.

The pitching
The Rays own the AL’s best ERA but they won’t for much longer if the rotation continues to falter. Tampa Bay’s starters have posted a 5.76 ERA during the club’s 10-16 skid, after posting a major league-best 2.72 ERA through 44 games.

Rookie Wade Davis has led the struggles. Unable to locate his fastball, he walked five Padres and fell to 0-4 in four June starts in a 2-1 loss Tuesday night.

"Four and a third (innings) and 103 pitches," Rays manager Joe Maddon pointed out. "We have to do better than that. He’s got to reign in command of his fastball. We’ve talked about it all year."

Davis has had company. James Shields, the senior member of the rotation at 28, has lost five consecutive starts (he earned a win in relief Saturday), and Matt Garza has allowed 15 runs in his past three starts.

Only David Price and Jeff Niemann have managed to avoid a rough stretch.

The hitting
Theirs has been an erratic attack all season. Carlos Pena, the primary cleanup hitter, has a .198 batting average but 15 homers. B.J. Upton still is underachieving at .226/.316/.391. An All-Star last year, Jason Bartlett is at .232. The club hit .299 with runners in scoring position through their hot start but only .224 since. In the long season, such a disparity can be expected to eventually even out.

B.J. Upton has struggled at the plate.
B.J. Upton has struggled at the plate.

"We need to regain the game of inches," Maddon said after a rally on Tuesday night was snuffed when a line drive hit baserunner John Jaso, preventing a first-and-third situation with the middle of the order coming up. "It’s one of those freaky moments that happen to everybody."

But with a lineup stocked with All-Stars, scoring hasn’t been much of a problem. The Rays still are tied for third in runs scored. Carl Crawford has been hot lately, Ben Zobrist has hit his stride and Evan Longoria has carried them all season.

The fans
OK, the Rays can’t blame their slump on a lack of support because they are used to playing inside of an echoing dome mostly full with empty seats. But the club has started to make its own noise about it.

Owner Stuart Sternberg held a news conference earlier this week to fire the first warning. As subtle as he was in saying that the club needs to explore potential stadium sites outside of St. Petersburg, his message was clear: If the situation doesn’t improve, there will be some kind of move long before the club’s lease at the Tropicana Field expires in 2027.

"The facts are too persuasive to ignore," Sternberg said at the news conference. "Baseball will not work long term in downtown St. Petersburg."

Though the club is winning and playing as entertaining a brand of ball as any team, about the only times it draws 20,000 fans are when the Yankees, Red Sox or Barenaked Ladies visit. As a result of the lack of support, the Rays likely won’t be linked to any of the big-name players who will be available before the nonwaiver trading deadline. 

If a team is a contender and no one's around to see it ... ?
If a team is a contender and no one’s around to see it … ?

The division
As the Rays roared through the first six weeks, the Red Sox dealt with injury and pitching woes to the point that they were teetering on a lost season. The turnaround for both teams began when Boston swept three games in Tampa Bay in the last week of May.

Just like that it seems, the Red Sox are back in their accustomed spot of contending. No one in Tampa Bay is surprised. "You’re just waiting for them to get their stuff together and they have," Maddon says. "We’re almost at the All-Star break."

The Rays have plenty of chances to pay back the Red Sox. Beginning with a two-game set at Fenway Park next week, 11 of the Rays’ 18 dates with the Red Sox remain. Tampa Bay also has 13 games left with the Yankees on a schedule that continues to draw Maddon’s criticism.

"Playing four teams 80 times in a season is ridiculous," says the manager, in a slight exaggeration (they actually play each division rival 18 times, not 20). "I would prefer a more balanced schedule."

In such a deep division, Maddon knows the significance of a strong start. In 2008, the Rays vaulted into contention early and went all the way to the World Series. In ’09, they weren’t able to overcome their 9-14 April.

"When you don’t get off to a good start in this division, that’s when you can get buried," Maddon says. "We got the wonderful start but we’ve been scuffling a bit as of late. That’s going to happen. I really was pushing for a good start knowing something like this would eventually happen."

Indeed the Rays’ heads remain way above water. Getting them back to the top, however, will not be easy.

Stan McNeal is a writer for Sporting News. E-mail him at smcneal@sportingnews.com.

Sponsored link: Rays tickets available

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