Monday, December 11, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Hard to see Rays turning season around

ST. PETERSBURG — Sooner or later, the Rays are going to have a clunker season. You can't be as good as they have been for this long and not eventually hit one of those bump-in-the-road seasons when, for no explanation, nothing goes right.

This would appear to be that season.

Face it, the Rays are a mess. And there's little to suggest they're going to get any better.

You keep reminding yourself to look at the calendar and see it's still early. It's not even halfway through the second month of a marathon six-month season. We're only 38 games in, with 124 more to go. That's an eternity.

But exactly how many games have to be played before we look at this Rays team and admit there's a problem? Isn't a 38-game stretch enough of a sample size to start getting the willies?

"It's no time to get panicky," Rays manager Joe Maddon said.

Okay, so maybe it's not time to hit the panic button, but now might be a good time to at least find out where it is.

Just a week ago, it looked as if the Rays had it all sorted out. They had salvaged what looked like a disastrous road trip by taking four of five from the Red Sox and Yankees.

Then came this cruddy homestand, which ended with a 6-5 loss on Sunday. The Rays lost five out of six to the Orioles and Indians — the nearly last-place Indians, I might add.

And speaking of last place, that's where you will find the Rays these days in the AL East.

Talk all you want about how early it is and how much baseball is left to be played, but the gap between the Rays and the rest of the division is starting to get just a tad bit distressing. They are 51/2 games out of first place and now head to the West Coast for a tough seven-game swing against the Mariners and Angels.

The theme for the trip is Woodstock, with players dressing up like they're from the Grateful Dead. This homestand, the Rays looked like the walking dead.

It's not just the sheer numbers — the losing record and the standings — that are reasons for concern. It's more how the Rays have gotten here.

The pitching has been lousy, and it all can't be chalked up to the losses of Alex Cobb, Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson to injuries. Ace David Price is on pace for a 13-13 season with a plus-4 ERA. That's not nearly good enough for a pitcher who is supposed to be one of the game's elite.

Sunday starter Chris Archer continued to look like a No. 4 pitcher — which, come to think of it, is exactly what he is.

Archer has electric stuff, but he's still a kid learning how to pitch at this level. Throwing six innings has become an accomplishment, and a rarity, for the 25-year-old. He pitched only five innings plus one batter (who homered) Sunday and hasn't been able to get an out in the sixth inning now for three consecutive starts.

Maddon had to turn to the bullpen way too early Sunday, and that has become a common theme this season. The starting pitchers start the fire, and the bullpen comes in spraying kerosene. Joel Peralta, whose primary pitch appears to be a gopher ball, has an ERA of 6.60. Closer Grant Balfour, who turns every save opportunity into a white-knuckles thrill ride, has an ERA north of 5.

And those two, along with Jake McGee, are the Rays' most reliable relievers among the mediocre likes of Josh Lueke, Brandon Gomes and Juan Carlos Oviedo.

Then there's an offense that continues to score just enough runs to come up short. The Rays were middle of the pack in offense last season and are middle of the pack again this season.

Slugger Evan Longoria is on pace to hit 17 homers with 90 RBIs. Those are nice numbers if you're just an ordinary player but far short of what you expect from a supposed superstar. Put it this way: Sean Rodriguez should not have as many homers as Longo at this point in the season (four).

Wil Myers is on pace for 17 homers and 81 RBIs. Again, that's decent for most but somewhat disappointing after his rookie-of-the-year season.

And then there's Ben Zobrist, who has nine RBIs this season. NINE! That to go along with a mere 10 extra-base hits in 144 at-bats.

Only James Loney, the Rays' lone .300 hitter, Matt Joyce and, on occasion, Desmond Jennings and Ryan Hanigan have come close to expectations. Still, Maddon is as positive as ever.

"If we weren't playing until the last out, I'd be concerned," Maddon said. "If you saw guys giving up, that would be my concern. But I don't see that at all. … I really believe in our guys a lot."

The only thing that truly gives you hope is that the Rays always seem to right themselves, even when things look bleak. They always seem to figure it out in time to put together a 90-win season. Maybe they will do it again this season.

Then again, maybe this is just one of those seasons when they won't.

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