ST. PETERSBURG — Rays catcher Curt Casali didn't like what he saw and heard from Marlins starter Jose Fernandez at the end of the fourth inning Thursday afternoon.
The Rays had just cobbled their only real rally in what ended up a 9-1 loss by loading the bases, and after getting Casali to pop out, Fernandez popped off a bit. Shortstop Brad Miller chirped back from the Rays dugout, and Fernandez shot Casali one of those looks.
"I don't really care for anybody who's looking me down, staring me down like that in that type of situation," Casali said.
But, Casali would add a few minutes later, that type of attitude Fernandez takes to the mound might be exactly what the Rays starters need to shake off a malaise that has unexpectedly, inexplicably made them the biggest reason for their overall struggles.
"I definitely want to adopt a more bulldog mentality from our starters," Casali said. "And we've all seen them do it in the past. I'm not calling them complacent at all because they work their butts off day in and day out to compete and win games.
"But we saw the other guy out there on the mound today, he was feisty the whole game. He has a will to win. That's why he has been so successful. And that's why our guys have been successful in the past, too.
"We just need to get back to that mentality."
The Rays offense might indeed be enhanced, though after scoring four-plus runs in 10 straight games, they totaled only three Wednesday and one Thursday, while striking out a whopping season-high-matching 16 times.
And the holes in the bullpen should be patchable, given the pending return of 2015 American League All-Star and saves leader Brad Boxberger, plus depth they have now, will add to when/if Neil Wagner and Jonny Venters make it back from Tommy John surgery, and can add to during the summer.
But these are the Rays.
And pitching, specifically starting pitching, is the key to what they do.
And when the front four to their touted rotation — Chris Archer, Drew Smyly, Jake Odorizzi and Matt Moore — has a combined 8-16 record, a 4.46 ERA and has allowed 216 hits in 220 innings, the job is not getting done.
"We came in, a lot of hype about our pitching staff," manager Kevin Cash said. "These guys take a lot of pride in what they do. They're going to figure it out, and when they do, we're going to get hot.
"But we need them to pitch better. We need them to get going. They're fully aware of that."
Smyly was the latest contributor Thursday, allowing five runs, including a pair of two-out, two-run homers, and lasting only six innings, the 26th time in their 44 games they didn't reach the pedestrian standard of a quality start — six or more innings with three or fewer runs.
Casali couldn't identify a common cause to their problems, suggesting that it appears they are "not quite in rhythm," and that they need to be more aggressive from the first pitch and "competitive in the zone," which is valid as early innings have been particularly vexing.
"There's been a little bit of a lull," he said.
Also, he said, he has to do a better job of calling games and coaxing the most out of the starters.
As the leader of the starting staff, which currently includes Matt Andriese as the fifth, Archer said they have had good games individually but not done so collectively, getting on the kind of roll where they all dominate for a turn, or even a couple, through the rotation.
Smyly agreed: "We're all capable. We've got to string it together. It's a long season. We all kind of build off each other. And when somebody slumps, sometimes we slump together. But there's plenty of time to put some quality outings together and execute."
Much the way when several hitters get hot at the same time they talk about it being contagious, the Rays starters need to find the contagion to spread among the staff.
"I think we need to start being contagious and infectious today," Archer said. "We definitely need that if we are going to be successful.
"Three or four runs should be enough for us to win baseball games."
That, at least in the past, has been the Rays way.