ST. PETERSBURG — For the past several years, Rays manager Joe Maddon said he could step into the dugout on a nightly basis and feel good about how his starter would stack up against the other side.
But Maddon admits he hasn't had that feeling in a while. He said it has been awkward and difficult to watch his rotation, typically the envy of baseball, struggle so much in an "epidemic" he hasn't endured since the Devil Rays days of 2006-07.
"It's been a while," he said.
That troubling trend continued in Friday's 7-2 loss to the Royals in front of 13,407 at Tropicana Field, with left-hander Matt Moore laboring for a third straight start. Tampa Bay (35-32) has lost five of its past six games, including five of the first eight on the current homestand.
"It's very difficult," Maddon said. "We can talk about our offense all we want, but until we start pitching like we can, it's going to be tough to get on a nice roll. We have to pitch a lot better to get to the spot where we want to this year."
Rays starters already have 18 starts in which they've allowed five earned runs or more, matching their total for the 2012 season, and their 20 games of five-plus runs are second most in the majors (Giants, 23).
"It's different," outfielder Matt Joyce said. "We're not used to those guys struggling."
On Friday it was Moore, who was charged with five runs in just 5⅓ innings and has given up 20 combined in what he called a "pretty disappointing" three-start losing streak after beginning the year 8-0.
"I'm not overtly worried about it," Maddon said. "(Moore) is going to be a very, very, very, very good major-league pitcher; already is. It's just a little bit frustrating to watch that right now, and it's becoming somewhat of an epidemic among the group."
This one got away from Moore quickly. He thought he was cruising after getting out of a first-inning jam with just one run, thanks to starting an inning-ending 1-4-2 double play. Moore then retired eight straight Royals and was staked with a 2-1 lead thanks to a first-inning homer by Joyce and an RBI double by designated hitter Evan Longoria.
But Moore was felled by a big inning, much like Jeremy Hellickson was in an eight-run sixth Thursday. Moore allowed four runs in the fifth, which started with a single by Jeff Francoeur and an RBI triple by former Ray Elliot Johnson.
"It just kind of got out of control at that point," Maddon said.
Moore's command was off, and he was abnormally hot, saying he was so soaked with sweat he changed his uniform pants between the fourth and the fifth. But he said that had nothing to do with his change in fortune.
"Getting first and second with no outs, that's a tough situation to get out of without scoring any runs," Moore said. "Regardless, I've got to do much better than putting up a four-spot."
The Rays blew an opportunity to come back in the seventh when they put runners on first and third with no outs. But Jose Lobaton and Yunel Escobar struck out, and Joyce flew out.
Closer Fernando Rodney gave up two runs in the ninth as the Royals (32-33) sealed their ninth win in 10 games and extended their franchise record of 13 consecutive games of limiting opponents to three runs or fewer.
That has typically been the Rays' formula, and Moore believes they'll return to their sterling standard.
"All the starters on our staff, we're pretty good," Moore said. "I think it's just a matter of us doing what we're capable of doing, staying within ourselves. You get going on some good streaks and you have some bad streaks. So we're hoping that it ends pretty quickly."