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Not time to panic about the Tampa Bay Rays. Yet.

ST. PETERSBURG — It was championship week at the ballpark, and the Rays did not skimp on the giveaways. They gave away rings and cowbells. They gave away trophies and pennants. They gave away everything a fan could want, except this:

The sense of wonder and joy this team created from thin air last season.

It is never a good sign when you begin a week by raising banners and end it by lowering standards. What would you give today for a quality start out of the rotation? For a shutdown performance by a reliever? For one stinking hit with a runner on second base?

A team that did not totally bomb during any homestand in 2008 just led off that way in 2009. Of course it is still ridiculously early, so you do not want to panic. You do not want to overreact. You may, however, want to retch.

You haven't seen anything like this at Tropicana Field in years, and that's barely an exaggeration. At 2-5, this was Tampa Bay's worst homestand since the days of 2007 when Casey Fossum was a Ray and game time was an enemy.

"We've got to start scoring some runs," manager Joe Maddon said Sunday afternoon. "We just have to."

It can't be that the Rays are crumbling under the weight of higher expectations. Not when you know what this team did when the pressure was a thousand pounds heavier last fall. And it doesn't seem to be a lack of talent. Not when you look at the roster and see nothing but upgrades. It isn't injuries, and it isn't a hideous schedule.

So how do you explain this butt-ugly beginning?

At this point, it is probably best to call it a misfortune of timing. A 5-8 record might sting at midseason, but it wouldn't get the same amount of attention as in the first weeks of April.

And if you want a positive spin, you might consider this: At a similar point last season — the third Monday in April — the Rays were three games below .500 and in last place in the AL East, 41/2 games behind the leader. Which is exactly the position they are in this morning.

So, no, this is not a complete disaster. But the manner in which the Rays have arrived at this position is at least partially disturbing.

The three best pitchers in the rotation did not come up with a single overpowering performance during the Chicago series. The bullpen has been frightening. And other than Ben Zobrist, the hitters have been missing at every key moment.

The Rays began Sunday with a lineup supposedly crammed with clutch performers. They were hitting .310 with runners in scoring position, the second-best mark in the American League.

It sounded sweet until you discovered it was mostly an illusion. The truth is, Tampa Bay fattened up a lot of its offensive numbers against a couple of struggling pitchers. For the majority of the past two weeks, Rays hitters have been putrid when it mattered most. In their eight losses, the Rays are hitting .148 with runners in scoring position, including Sunday's 0-for-9 performance.

"The part I've been trying to push and advocate over the last couple of years is being able to score with outs," Maddon said. "Having more productive outs, singles, just really playing with the middle of the field in an RBI situation. We strike out a lot. The part I don't like is the strikeout with a runner on third and less than two outs. That's a bad strikeout.

"Nobody on and two outs, I'm okay with a strikeout. You're trying to get a double or better in those situations. There are different times and different moments where a strikeout is more palatable. I just believe we have to continue to talk about it.

"We're going to hit home runs, but we definitely need to do a better job of scoring runs on outs or singles, and not just rely on the long ball all the time."

Which is what they have been doing. Of their 62 runs, 32 have come on home runs. That means they've relied on homers 52 percent of the time. Last season homers accounted for 37 percent of their scoring.

Again, this is a very small sample. If this were the NFL, we'd be at halftime of the second game. So do not fret too much over Matt Garza's 4.58 ERA or Pat Burrell's .225 batting average or Tampa Bay's .385 winning percentage.

From the start of spring training, Maddon said he wanted humility from his guys.

Well, they've got nothing to brag about today.

Not time to panic about the Tampa Bay Rays. Yet. 04/19/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 22, 2009 8:09pm]
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