ST. PETERSBURG — Somewhere in between the team that looked so bad in losing 11 of 13 games and the team that looked so good in winning nine of 11 are the real Rays.
On Thursday afternoon, they played very much like the losers.
They made three errors plus a handful of bad decisions, got only 31/3 innings from not-so-hot prospect Blake Snell and went a horrid 3-for-15 with runners in scoring position.
Yet they nearly again ended up winners, falling just short of sweeping the Mariners in a 6-4 defeat.
"For us to play a game like we did today and still have a chance to win, it shows you the mettle of our team," said DH Steve Pearce.
Despite Snell (and shaky shortstop Tim Beckham) putting them in 3-0 and 5-2 holes, despite playing without Evan Longoria, who is day to day with a sore left forearm, and Steven Souza Jr., on the disabled list due to a strained left hip, the Rays actually had a pretty good chance: Pearce at the plate with the bases loaded down one in the eighth.
Most times, the Rays would take that. This time, he struck out.
"We found some ways to win this series; obviously we didn't today," manager Kevin Cash said. "I think there's still enough to be a lot positive about. We continue to battle, put guys in scoring position. The big hit kind of eluded us. Loved the way our bullpen, Garty and Sturdy (that's Ryan Garton and Tyler Sturdevant in nonbaseball nomenclature) kept us in the ball game and gave us plenty of opportunity. The at-bats were tremendous. We just couldn't quite find that one separating hit. Really, really liked the way the guys competed.
"Look, if we keep winning series, we're going to be just fine."
Especially over the next two weeks, which might play a large role in determining which team the Rays really are.
Starting tonight, when they host Buster Posey — yes, that Buster Posey, catching in person, right here at the Trop — and the other San Francisco Giants, the Rays (31-33) open a critical juncture.
Each of the next four series is against a team at the top, or co-top, of its division. After hosting the NL West-leading Poseys, the Rays go on the road to face the Indians and the Orioles, then come home to meet up with the Red Sox.
"These," Souza said, "are really important games."
A major cause for concern is the mounting injuries to key hitters, even after getting Logan Forsythe back.
Souza, third on the team in homers and RBIs, will be out at least two weeks. Brandon Guyer (hamstring) looks to be weeks away from returning, Kevin Kiermaier (broken hand) more than that.
And even if Longoria is back in the lineup tonight or Saturday, the fact he has had to miss two of the last eight games for the same issue can't be comforting.
On Thursday, the Rays' outfield was two guys who started the season in Triple-A Durham, Jaff Decker and Mikie Mahtook, and another who nearly played his way back there, Desmond Jennings. Plus, they had another callup, Taylor Motter, at third, and Beckham, who already was demoted once this year, at short.
"The guys that we have here need to help us find ways to win ball games," Cash said, "and for the most part a lot of them are doing that and contributing."
That shows up with the big hits, but also sometimes in little ways, such as batters grinding out at-bats, battling to put the ball in play with runners on base, being smart on the bases, playing tidy defense.
A major reason for hope is the improved work on the mound.
Though still not synced up in top form, the starters have started to look better, and adding Matt Andriese should help the heavily used bullpen.
"You're definitely seeing a correlation between us winning and good pitching," catcher Curt Casali said.
Chris Archer, who goes tonight, seems to have his early season issues behind him and his confidence back. Matt Moore has been better. Drew Smyly sharper after his respite. Jake Odorizzi up and down.
"It kinda (stinks) that now Souza is down right after Logan gets back and things start clicking with our lineup. It does stink," Archer said.
"But I think everybody can see the pitching is going in the right direction. And if our offense keeps banging, a few months from now we might be sitting in a nice position."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.