ST. PETERSBURG — Beneath all the sophisticated theorem, advanced statistics, complex strategy and matchup-exploiting maneuvers Joe Maddon employs in managing the Rays bullpen is a core prerequisite:
Knowing what to expect from each reliever.
But nearly two months into the season, the most consistent thing about the bullpen has been its staggering inconsistency.
Pitcher to pitcher, game to game, batter to batter there's been little the Rays can count on. Except that it's probably going to end up being, at the least, more interesting than necessary.
And far too often, as happened again Wednesday in Toronto when the Rays blew a ninth-inning lead and lost for the third time in a 16-game stretch, it is deflating, frustrating, infuriating and mystifying as well.
"I don't have a great explanation for the recent struggles," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said Thursday. "Bullpens are extremely difficult to predict by nature, but we came into the year with as much confidence as you can have in what they were capable of. We struggled in the bullpen early last year and the narrative was that our bullpen wasn't very good, and we all know how that turned out.
"We are confident in this group of guys, and I'm looking forward to them having a run of success so they can get back to pitching aggressively and with confidence."
To this point, the relievers haven't done any of that well, compiling a 4.80 bullpen ERA that is the highest of all major-league teams except for the barely above Triple-A Astros.
Closer Fernando Rodney has been in the spotlight, though seemingly not in jeopardy of losing his job, having already blown more saves (four to two) and allowed more earned runs (11-5), walks (17-15) and home runs (3-2) than in his entire record-breaking 2012 season.
But it has been a team effort, save for Joel Peralta, who has been the Rays' one reliable reliever and, as a result, has already pitched in an American League-most 24 games.
Returnees Jake McGee (7.94 ERA, .268 opponents batting average) and Kyle Farnsworth (8.44, .420) have struggled for long stretches, forcing Maddon to veer from the formulaic approach and experiment with different combinations in the sixth and seventh inning. Newcomer Jamey Wright has been up and down, as has Cesar Ramos in his first full-time gig replacing J.P. Howell as the other left-hander. And when Maddon tried Josh Lueke in a key situation Monday, the seventh-inning of a 3-3 game, he failed.
Maddon said after Wednesday's debacle, when the Rays lost for the 15th time after leading, that there wasn't much they could do but hope for improvement.
"Everybody's been doing their best. They're trying, and it's just not working out," he said.
"Stick with the guys. We're going to keep plugging through it. It's going to come back to us."
There don't appear to be many options, at least internally.
The Rays have already dipped into their depth in calling up Brandon Gomes, and when he went on the disabled list (and likely will be for several more weeks), Lueke. Next in line at Triple-A Durham would be converting starters Alex Torres, who was impressive in a cameo role Saturday, and/or hard-throwing Alex Colome.
Continued struggles could lead to an interesting question: Could the bigger loss in the Kansas City trade be Wade Davis, who did a tremendous unheralded job in middle relief, than starter James Shields?
There are many components to the bullpen failure and that includes the starters, who have a 4.17 ERA and barely average six innings a start, not going deeper. But part of the problem is obvious: In working 123⅔ innings, Rays relievers have allowed a whopping 176 baserunners: 111 via hits, including 15 home runs, 61 walks and four hit batters.
"The whole season has been a little bit upside down," Maddon said. "The offense has contributed, we still play wonderful defense, it's just that the pitching, where it normally makes sense, right now is not making whole lot of sense."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected].com.