Saturday, November 18, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Starting pitching letting Rays down early in season

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BALTIMORE — The new guys brought in to boost the Rays lineup have not yet been much help.

Even with Corey Dickerson's third home run of the season in Sunday's 5-3 loss to the Orioles, and with Steve Pearce's first RBI and even with Brad Miller's first hit, their contributions, plus those of Hank Conger and Logan Morrison, don't add up to much.

A .160 average — 12-for-75 — with the three home runs and four RBIs total, to be exact.

And through an uneven first week of play, that has not been the team's biggest problem.

If the Rays, 2-4 but already 3½ games behind the undefeated Orioles in the AL East, are going to get on any kind of winning streak — heck, if they are going to make anything out of this season — they are going to have to get better starting pitching.

And they know it.

That is the strength of their team, a front four they believe is as dominant as any in the game. And through the first of the 26 weeks of this season, they have not only not been great, they have not even been very good.

Like 0-4, 5.67 ERA not very good.

Like 39 hits (including nine home runs) allowed in 331/3 innings not very good.

Like part of the problem rather than the solution not very good.

"We're not happy with the way we're throwing the ball," said Jake Odorizzi, who allowed four runs in one inning to go with five zeroes Sunday. "As a staff, we're not happy with what we're doing. And that just speaks to the standard that we've set for ourselves."

Some of the trouble — whether it's Odorizzi or Chris Archer or Drew Smyly or Matt Moore — has been isolated to one bad inning, or one bad sequence within an inning.

On Sunday, you even make a case the difference for Odorizzi having a good outing instead of one he felt bad about was one pitch, the misplaced 1-and-2 cutter he threw that Manny Machado crushed to turn a messy two-run second inning into a four-run mountain the Rays offense could not scale.

"Bad pitch selection," Odorizzi said. "I should have known better than to throw it in there. … And the execution was bad, it was on the plate and more on the plate, instead of ball (off the plate) to strike."

But manager Kevin Cash said there has been a bigger, more widespread issue among pitching coach Jim Hickey's talented crew.

"We're still falling behind a little bit more than we're accustomed to," Cash said. "That's not just Odo, that's our entire starting staff, it seems like. The count control is such a big thing, and I know Hick pounds that message, and our pitchers buy into that. We're just not controlling the count as well as we're capable of right now."

By falling behind, the starters not only lose control of the at-bats but put themselves in vulnerable and, at times, defensive positions where they are not operating from their strengths.

"Generally," Cash said, "their style is to attack hitters and to keep pumping strikes. And in those big counts, crucial counts, generally we're in control of that."

There are other issues, too.

The Rays started with a four-man rotation to take advantage of abundant off days. But they have not gotten into a regular rhythm, and after a reshuffling due in part to Saturday's rainout, they won't yet.

And the offense, new and old hitters, has not given them much, if any, breathing room as the Rays have led at the end of only six of 54 innings thus far.

As difficult as it might be to watch at times now, there is some salvation for the Rays in knowing how much better the starters can be, especially as they get to more of a regular schedule.

"Don't confuse that with me saying they haven't been throwing the ball well," Cash said. "It's just a matter of we know they're capable of more."

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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