ST. PETERSBURG — Even as they were rolling bulletproof through late June and July with a stunning 26-6 run that took them briefly to the top of the American League East, the Rays knew they weren't going to be able to keep it up.
"Of course, there was definitely going to be something," manager Joe Maddon said. "We definitely were not going to just buzz all through this thing."
There was something all right, a team effort in fact, as the Rays went from sizzling to struggling on the mound, at the plate and just about everywhere else, losing seven of their past nine, including all five on the cross-country interleague road trip that brought them back to Tampa International Airport around 5:30 Monday morning.
And after whatever was left of that "off" day, they return to the Trop this afternoon to start an extremely rugged run they hope carries them to the postseason: 46 games over the season's final 48 days.
Maddon, coaches Jim Hickey and Derek Shelton and several players insist there's no reason for concern from the schedule or the deficit they now face. "We're not panicking," outfielder Sam Fuld said. "We're confident we'll finish strong."
Here's a look at how things turned for the Rays, and what the next seven weeks look like:
For starters, a mess
For more than a month, much of it after David Price's return from the disabled list, a Rays starter who took the mound had the golden touch. They averaged nearly seven innings a start over 32 games, combined for an MLB-best 2.21 ERA and threw seven complete games (more than any team has for the season) in a 19-game span.
But then Matt Moore got hurt and they went to a four-man rotation, and Jeremy Hellickson regressed, Chris Archer left a start early and Roberto Hernandez still was Roberto Hernandez. The result has been a mess, as their starters have failed to last even five innings in six of the past nine games (granted, four under NL rules) and have no wins and a 5.36 ERA.
"We've just hit a little rough patch for 10 days," Price said. "But the 40 days before that we were really, really good. It's going to happen. There's no team in baseball able to run out guys just as dominant and as good as we were for an entire year without hitting that rough spot. And that's what we've done. …
"But we're still a very confident group and we're getting back some key factors (Alex Cobb, Moore) that will help us get back to the point we had been."
A little offensive
The Rays offense has been sputtering since the All-Star break, and the quality pitching they faced over the past nine games — Wade Miley (twice), Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum, Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw — has made it even worse.
Consider that going into the break, the Rays led the American League by hitting .288 with runners in scoring position. Since the break, they've hit only .239 in those situations, 11th in the league. And over the nine games, .224. In that same span, they've had the fewest runs, extra-base hits and homers in the league, and grounded into the second-most double plays.
"The whole first half of the season we did a really good job with runners in scoring position, runners at third with less than two outs," Shelton said. "We've gone through a little bit of a, I don't know if lull is the right word, but where if we had five of those (opportunities) a night we were getting four in and now we're getting one or two in.
"That's kind of all cyclical, and it's just that we're going through one of those stretches and on top of it facing the pitching we faced."
Playing 46 games in 48 days is rigorous enough. (On the other hand, playing sporadically hasn't gone well as they are 1-8 after scheduled off days.)
More challenging is how the Rays have to do it, with five more road trips, including another cross-country trek for a 10-game swing through Oakland, Anaheim and Seattle, and a one-day visit to Kansas City for a makeup game.
Also, 24 games are with teams they are competing directly with for the division or wild-card spots: seven with the Orioles, six with the Yankees, four with the Rangers, three each with the A's and Red Sox, one with the Royals.
By the end of this week, the Rays will have Cobb back in the rotation and Moore joining him or close. As a byproduct, one of the less effective pitchers, most likely Hernandez, will be out.
Even if Cobb, who missed two months, and Moore, two-plus weeks, aren't sharp initially, it's reasonable to think they will be stronger down the stretch as a result of the time off. Similarly, centerfielder Desmond Jennings (broken finger) is expected back next week and should have fresh legs.
There is also help coming for the bullpen — high-end, experienced help — and that could be huge in September. All-Star Jesse Crain, acquired last month from the White Sox, is working his way back from a shoulder strain. And Juan Carlos Oviedo, a solid closer for the Marlins 2009-11 when known as Leo Nunez, is getting to the final stages of rehab from Tommy John surgery. Also, Brandon Gomes should be a September callup.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.