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Pitching tops reasons for Rays' poor start

BOSTON — The Rays' disappointing 11-16 start has actually left manager Joe Maddon speechless.

Not because of the injuries to two top starters or the residual impact on their overworked bullpen. Not the inconsistency of their offense. Nor the unusual costly defensive miscues.

Where the vocabulary-enhanced Maddon uncharacteristically ran out of words after Wednesday's game vs. the Red Sox was postponed was in trying to explain how the Rays thus far had been both incredibly lucky and horribly unlucky.

"What would that be? I don't know," Maddon said. "And I'm usually a wordsmith."

What is simple to express is that the Rays have struggled through the opening month. "It could have been better, no question," Maddon said.

But he is just as clear in his confidence that they will find their way, citing a 12-14 start for last year's playoff team, and finds hope in how they've gotten to this point.

First, that they've been unlucky in how they're losing, specifically in how well they've done at the plate without the results to show for it.

"Really a nonfortuitous month," he said. "We've hit the ball extremely well this month, and our numbers don't reflect that."

Second, that they've been lucky in that no other American League East team has been winning enough to make their bad start a big problem. They are only 4½ games behind the first-place Yankees.

"Look at the (standings) board out here in leftfield and there's not a huge separation going on right now," Maddon said. "Beyond that, having played everybody in our division already, it is pretty close. I don't see one overwhelming team right now. So I think we're going to kind of beat each other up all season."

So how did the Rays get to this point? Here's a look at some of their problems:

Pitching

Obviously the injuries that sidelined top starters Matt Moore (for the season) and Alex Cobb (for 6-8 weeks), with Jeremy Hellickson already out and Alex Colome suspended, are a major reason for the Rays' struggles, evidenced by a 4.41 team ERA that ranks 10th in the American League.

"We have not pitched up to our normal standards," Maddon said. "Look at where we are pitching-wise; that's the primary reason why we're in the situation we're in right now. But we will."

With Cobb and Hellickson expected back in early June, maybe so. But for now the impact of the injuries has been dramatic:

• The rotation has been filled out with second-tier candidates — Jake Odorizzi (right), Cesar Ramos and Erik Bedard were competing in spring training for the No. 5 spot and now all are starting — and it shows. The Rays are 3-8 in the games those three have started, and they are a combined 2-5, 5.96. (The Rays are 7-4 in games started by David Price and Chris Archer, who are a combined 5-3, 4.48.)

• The bullpen has had to cover more innings than expected (91 total), and that, too, has shown. The extensive workload has been more of an issue as they have had to deal with integrating new relievers, Juan Carlos Oviedo not being ready to open the season and a roster shuffle to keep a fresh arm on hand.

In the 15 games since Cobb was hurt, Rays starters have failed to get past five innings 11 times, pitching to a collective 6.24 ERA and working only 141/3 more innings than the relievers.

Hitting

Maddon insisted again Wednesday that "the offense has performed really well," citing the overall quality at-bats and the high number of hard-hit balls that have been caught, which plays into the bad-luck theme.

There are certain stats that support his position: The Rays are 17th in the majors in basic batting average at .249 but 23rd with a .287 average on balls in play. And, according to an advanced ESPN stat, they rank fourth among all teams in percentage of balls hit hard but have only the 24th best average on the ones they do.

And there have been some standout individual performances, starting with Matt Joyce, who ranks third in the American League in on-base plus slugging percentage (.961) and sixth in batting average (.328).

There has been some overall consistency to the offense, as they don't have anyone with more than three homers or 15 RBIs. But also some jarring inconsistency, as they have 12 games with two or fewer runs and seven with seven or more.

And also some disturbing inefficiencies, specifically against left-handed pitching, as they are just 2-6 against southpaw starters and have a team .223 average and .624 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging average), both 14th in the AL. Infielder Logan Forsythe, who was brought in specifically to combat lefties, has yet to do much, nor has Wil Myers.

"There's a couple guys that really hit lefties well that haven't yet, and that's a big part of our problem," Maddon said.

Little right vs. left

Several of the Rays' key righties have struggled hitting lefties:

Logan Forsythe .217

Ryan Hanigan .133

Desmond Jennings .154

Wil Myers .143

Sean Rodriguez .158

Big innings

Big innings — many during the bridge innings between short starters and extended relievers — have been a big problem.

The Rays already have had 17 innings in which they allowed three or more runs compared to 12 last April. Worse, they've had five innings in which they allowed five or more runs, which they did only 10 times all of last season.

"I look up at the scoreboard and I see too many 3, 4, 5s in specific innings. That's something we don't normally do," Maddon said. "We're normally pretty good. We have to do a better job."

Big trouble

April April Entire 2014 2013 2013

Innings of:

3+ runs 17 12 69

4+ 11 5 26

5+ 5 1 10

Defense

For the most part, the Rays have played their usual dazzling defense, flashing leather all around the field. But when they've made mistakes, they've been costly. Defensive plays led directly to two losses in Chicago, 2B Zobrist not turning a double play on a grounder in advance of the walkoff grand slam Friday and the four-error inning on Sunday.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@tampabay.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.

The cruelest month

How this April compares to last in some key categories:

2014 2013

W-L 11-16 12-14

Avg. .249 .239

Runs 112 105

OBP .332 .309

SLG .379 .392

2B 55 36

HR 20 30

SB 9 16

ERA 4.41 3.97

OAVG .255 .236

RA 84 69

SPI 149.2 167.1

RPI 91.0 59.1

E 12 10

OAVG: opponents average; RA: relief appearances; SPI: starter innings; RPI: reliever innings

Pitching tops reasons for Rays' poor start 04/30/14 [Last modified: Thursday, May 1, 2014 12:23am]
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