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Gary Shelton: Rays are running low on time to change direction

Now do they turn it around?

Now do they become a ballclub?

If you operate under the assumption that the Rays will flex their muscles when you would least expect it, well, time seems to be up. After spending weeks doing a pretty good impression of a last-place ballclub, who would really expect anything else?

Yeah, the Rays have the American League right where they want it.

Or not.

Around here, it's 2002 all over again. David Price has turned into Tanyon Sturtze, and Evan Longoria has become Ben Grieve, and Grant Balfour has become Esteban Yan. A lot of guys, it seems, are competing to be Jason Tyner. Somewhere, Hal McRae is waking up screaming.

That was a lost team, all right. That lead-legged, mush-armed crew lost 106 games, and the lights never did come on. It felt a lot like, well, this.

It's funny. We spend years hoping the Bucs can return to their 2002 form, and as it turns out, the Rays get there first.

It's May, and already the season feels as if it is unraveling. After 45 games, the team has settled into last place, and the sad part is, it doesn't feel like much more. It's seven games under .500 and sinking like a rock in water. Whenever it takes the field, there is the smell of death in the air. And, of course, opponents' doubles.

If this gets any worse, why, it may affect the attendance.

Which, of course, is why the upcoming homestand against Oakland and Boston is so important. The A's are in first place in the AL West. The Sox are struggling almost as badly as the Rays, but that's always a battle. And the Rays? As early as it is in the season, it's starting to feel late.

For the optimists out there, yes, there is a precedent. Last year, for instance, the Rays were in last place on June 22. They weren't pitching very well, and guys were hurt, and the hitting looked a lot like missing. They didn't look like they were going anywhere in those days, either.

And then something clicked, and the team won 22 of its next 27 games and took over first place, and no one remembered what a dark, dank place the cellar was. The closer, Fernando Rodney, saved 11 games over that run. The starting pitching got better. The team righted itself and went on to the playoffs.

Can that happen again?

We'll see. But the thing is, last year's team at least had a winning record when it visited last place. There was more hope and fewer flaws. This time, a lot of tumblers have to fall into place for the Rays to be the Rays once again. Unless you're Joe Maddon, that's hard to picture.

It's funny, because everyone expected the Rays to be good again this year. They had been too good for too long to think anything else. The pitching looked good, the bullpen looked solid, the defense looked sharp. Like most years, there seemed to be just enough hitting.

Instead, the Rays have taken on the look of a drowning team. They blow leads (16 in the past 21 games). The rotation has been shredded, and it's hard for any team to prosper while that's going on. The bullpen is overworked already. The hitting is overmatched.

The good news? Alex Cobb is coming back, and soon after, Jeremy Hellickson. But will that be enough to restore the balance of this team? Will that end the run of games that got away?

It's odd. Because the longer the Rays struggle, the more some of their fan base looks for hidden reasons for it. Why, it's the team attitude! Why, it's the lack of speed! Why, it's the manager!

Hey, when a team is stumbling through the darkness, blame whom you want. The truth is that it's hard to win without starting pitching, especially for a franchise that has always put so much stock in it. Think about this stat: In games when the starting pitcher has gone six innings, the team is 14-4. In games when he hasn't, it's 5-21.

The Rays have the 23rd-ranked ERA in the majors. They're 19th in opponents' average. They're 23rd in saves. They're tied for 28th in quality starts. Cobb can't come back quickly enough. And as bad as Hellickson was last year, he has to be better than this. Doesn't he?

Ask yourself this: What is special about these guys? Where, exactly, do you see All-Stars? Where do you see a guy off to a career year? Sure, the Rays are better than this. But are they playoffs good? Given their limitations, what should their record be?

Going into this homestand, that's the thing that concerns you. The pitchers don't go deep enough (only two seven-inning stints in the past 25) in games. The bullpen doesn't close the door. The closer walks too many batters. The defense seems prone to lapses.

And so on.

Hey, the Rays have been good for so long that we've forgotten what it's like to see a team struggle. Right now, the Rays are a hard team to watch. The Marlins have won more games than this. The Indians have won as many.

Maybe it changes this week. Maybe the pitchers last a little longer. Maybe someone gets a hit with a runner on base. Maybe someone protects a lead like it's a good thing to keep.

After all, isn't it about time?

You know, before the team runs out of it?

Gary Shelton: Rays are running low on time to change direction 05/19/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 20, 2014 12:04am]
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