Bet you never thought that one of the most important pitching performances of the Rays season would take place at 8,500-seat McKechnie Field in Bradenton.
But it's true.
Tonight, David Price, the 2012 AL Cy Young winner, will try to jump-start his crummy 2013 season by pitching a rehab game against a bunch of Class A prospects from the Bradenton Marauders. Don't worry about Price's pitching line. A successful start would be a few 90 mph fastballs and an arm that feels fine at the end of the night.
As if Price's season couldn't get any worse after a 1-4 record and 5.24 ERA, he left a game May 15 with a triceps strain and hasn't pitched in a real game since. The hope is Price will be back in the rotation by the first week in July.
That can't come soon enough.
Because I also bet you never would have thought that the Rays would be scuffling all season because they suddenly forgot how to pitch.
That's like the Man of Steel forgetting how to fly. Pitching is just what the Rays always have done. It's in their DNA.
Until this season.
One of the best staffs in baseball over the past five seasons has hit the skids. And if it doesn't turn it around quickly, this season is over. Forget the surprising offense, pitching will determine the Rays' finish in 2013. And so far, it hasn't been good.
Heading into Thursday, the team ERA was 4.33 — third-worst in the majors. The starting rotation's ERA was even worse: 4.56 — 23rd in the majors.
Part of the problem: injuries. Price has missed more than a month. Alex Cobb is out after being hit in the head by a line drive. They've already used eight starters after using eight all of last season. This week, in critical games, the Rays will have starts by Alex Colome, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi — pitchers who started the season in the minors.
The other issue is the Rays are down a starter after trading James Shields in the offseason. Not only have they missed his dominating presence on the mound, but his apparently irreplaceable leadership in the clubhouse.
Andrew Friedman, the man who pulled the trigger on the biggest trade in franchise history, shouldn't be second-guessed for the deal that included sending Shields to the Royals for slugger Wil Myers. Friedman — just like everyone — could not have anticipated the rest of the rotation and all of the supposed depth would be so slow in its maturation.
Price's season has been off-kilter pretty much from the start, and no one saw that coming.
Matt Moore started 8-0 but lost his mojo until his solid outing Thursday against the Yankees. Alex Cobb was really good, maybe even the staff's best pound-for-pound pitcher, until his injury. And you can't really jump on Roberto Hernandez because he is what he is — a fifth starter who will sometimes be awful, usually mediocre and only occasionally really good.
The most disappointing starter — well, after Price — has been Jeremy Hellickson, who was supposed to evolve into the consistent bulldog No. 2 starter.
But Hellickson, who is 26 and old enough that he can't be called a kid very much longer, has been all over the place. He pitched decently enough Wednesday to improve to 5-3 but has failed to get past six innings in nine of his 15 starts and gone past seven innings only twice. He has allowed more earned runs (56) than any pitcher in the majors.
Meantime, as much as we want to assign star status to young arms such as Moore and Archer, we still see moments that remind us they remain works in progress. They are still growing, still learning how to pitch out of trouble, still figuring out how to win when they don't have their best stuff. They are still trying to corral their emotions in good moments and bad.
In other words, they are kids pitching like kids.
But the entire staff better grow up quickly because pennants are won by throwing baseballs, not hitting them.
The past two times the Rays made the postseason (2010, 2011), they were among the worst hitting teams in the AL. But both years, they finished second in team ERA.
Now look at this season.
The Rays entered Thursday fifth in the AL in runs, sixth in homers and seventh in average. But they are clinging to stay above .500.
Check out the rest of baseball. Four of the top six team ERAs in the AL belong to clubs that would make the playoffs if they started today. In the NL, all five teams that would make the playoffs rank among the top six in ERA. Yet many of those teams have batting averages in the middle of the pack.
Hellickson must get more consistent. Moore has to be a force in the second half. The Rays can only hope Cobb turns out okay and can pitch again soon. If he can't, Archer needs to grow up quicker.
But mostly, the Rays need Price to get back into the rotation and start pitching like the best pitcher in baseball again.
That road starts tonight in, of all places, Bradenton.