ST. PETERSBURG — First baseman Carlos Peña made the rounds in the quiet Rays clubhouse after Thursday's 5-2 loss to the Tigers, chatting one-on-one with several teammates.
Peña, seemingly always optimistic, acknowledged that Tampa Bay (40-36), which has lost four in a row and 11 of its past 16, is in the midst of "the toughest stretch we've gone through this year."
And it won't get any easier as the scuffling Rays offense is scheduled to face reigning AL Cy Young and MVP Justin Verlander tonight at Tropicana Field.
Peña's message was simple: accept the struggles but don't carry it on your back, rather persevere.
"We don't want to fold our tents. We want to take that extra step," Peña said. "It might be that extra step that gets us right where we want to be. This is a long year, and to think that we were going to go through the whole entire year without facing adversity is foolish. We've been facing a lot of adversity as a ballclub. I keep on saying it's how we handle the adversity that we're going through at this moment that is going to define us as champions or not."
As much as the Rays lineup has been hampered by injuries, including the prolonged absence of third baseman Evan Longoria, manager Joe Maddon said they need a consistent offense to dig out of it. Tampa Bay, outscored 26-8 in the four-game losing streak, picked up just four hits Thursday that were not by Brooks Conrad (who had two doubles) in front of 20,532.
Tampa Bay's Nos. 1-5 hitters went 1-for-18 Thursday, and the Rays are hitting an AL-low .222 in June.
"I think we need to start feeding off our offense a little bit and that will pick up our spirits," Maddon said. "When you're not hitting, it kind of looks bad or flat because you can't overcome any of the mistakes you're making."
Right-hander James Shields gave up a career-high 14 hits, matching a club record, but he battled in allowing four runs over 7? innings. He also committed a throwing error on a pickoff attempt in the sixth that led to a run.
"They found every single hole they could possibly find," Shields said. "It wasn't a very good day. You can compete all you want, you can go deep into the game all you want, but the bottom line is we lost the game, and I've got to do a better job."
It could have been worse had it not been for a great play by second baseman Jeff Keppinger. With two on and no outs in the third, Keppinger's made a leaping catch on a Miguel Cabrera liner, then tagged second to complete the double play. The Rays weren't as fortunate, however, in the fourth, when Peña charged a slow chopper by Quintin Berry, and in trying to throw Brennan Boesch out at home he fumbled the exchange, which allowed a run to score.
"I'm going to err on the side of aggressiveness," Peña said. "The only thing was that I erred."
Maddon said the team's "offensive malaise" includes lacking the big hit with runners in scoring position. They were 1-for-6 in the game, including Peña striking out with a runner on second (fifth inning) and third (seventh).
As a result, Tampa Bay, which was in first place June 11, is 6½ behind of the Yankees in the AL East, and two games out of last.
"We're going to make peace with this, we're going to brush off and start from scratch," Peña said. "It may be a huge climb up, but it all starts with one step."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]