Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays pick bad time for bad stretch

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays have picked a pretty lousy time to have their longest losing streak in more than two years.

It's one thing to get knocked around on the road by the D'backs and white-hot Dodgers. It's another to start a get-healthy homestand by losing to the scuffling Mariners.

"We still have a lot of baseball left," Rays ace David Price said. "A ton of baseball."

Actually, 45 games to be exact.

Right now the Rays, losers of six straight, are second in the American League East, but are holding down one of the two wild-card spots.

Here's what the Rays really need to have happen in the final 45 games.

Evan Longoria needs to wake up

We can sit here and complain about Luke Scott being in another slump and how the catchers don't do anything and how we're still waiting on Matt Joyce to turn into a really good player. But if you're looking to Scott and Joyce and the catchers, you're looking in the wrong direction.

The guy who is supposed to be doing the heavy lifting is third baseman Evan Longoria.

"He always will be (that player)," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "It's important he plays well because he is the cornerstone of this whole thing."

Lately, however, that cornerstone has shown cracks. He had a hit Tuesday night, but is floundering in the worst slump of his career. In his previous 32 games before Tuesday, Longoria hit a paltry .175 with five homers, 15 RBIs and an alarming 45 strikeouts.

If he puts up numbers like that the rest of the way, the Rays have little chance no matter how well Wil Myers, James Loney and Ben Zobrist hit.

The Rays need their best player to be their best player.

Alex Cobb and Matt Moore need to bounce back

Price has come back from early-season issues and injury to, again, become the stopper. Chris Archer has developed into a reliable starter, though Tuesday he had his second consecutive shaky outing, not counting a start cut short by a minor injury.

But even if you can count on Archer, the Rays can't get through the next 45 games with only two dependable starters.

So who does that leave? Forget Roberto Hernandez. He seems days from being yanked from the starting rotation. And there's Jeremy Hellickson, whose most consistent trait is that he is inconsistent.

So that leaves Cobb and Moore. Cobb is expected to return Thursday, two months after being struck in the head with a line drive.

"Before Alex Cobb went down, he was one of the best pitchers in baseball," Price said.

Meantime, the Rays hope Moore, who still leads the team with 14 victories, can come back this weekend after missing a few turns with elbow soreness.

"He's one of the biggest reasons why we are where we are right now," Price said. "He really threw the ball well for us when I wasn't throwing well."

But their returns raise as much concern as hope. Will Cobb be okay physically after being out so long and mentally after such a scary injury? Is Moore's elbow situation just a hiccup or the early signs of a lingering issue?

If you're looking for the positive spin, if both are healthy then they should have plenty left in the tank for the stretch run.

The Rays need to win the division

If you win the division, you're guaranteed to play at least a best-of-five series. Winning the wild card guarantees you one game only. And in that one game, you could end up facing the other team's ace, say Kansas City's James Shields or Texas' Yu Darvish or Oakland's Bartolo Colon.

"You don't want to do that one-game Russian Roulette," Maddon said. "You don't want that. You want to win the division and wait for the two other teams to sweat it out."

Of course, Maddon points out, a one-game playoff is better than sitting at home.

Final analysis

The Rays need plenty of things to go well down the stretch.

The bullpen can't spring leaks like it did in that loss Friday in Los Angeles that becomes more haunting by the day. Closer Fernando Rodney needs to find his mojo again.

Certain players need to continue chipping in at the plate, as Zobrist did Tuesday with two homers. The defense has to be a strength.

Those are all givens.

But this whole thing comes down to three players: Longoria, Cobb and Moore.

If Longoria continues to swing and miss as much as his has lately and if Cobb and Moore can't come back to counteract the disturbing ineffectiveness of Hellickson, then this current losing streak is more than a slump.

It could turn out to be just the start of a late-season collapse.

 
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