Sunday, December 17, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays try not to panic over rough start

BALTIMORE — Tuesday's rainout could not have been much better timed for the Rays, a chance to reset their rotation torn asunder in the past week by injuries to Matt Moore and Alex Cobb, and to refresh their confidence.

Two weeks — and just two weeks — into their season of grand expectations, the Rays' record may be 7-7, but it seems they're fighting a losing battle.

"It's hard not to look at what we're going through right now and be kind of, I guess, disappointed is the word that comes to mind, with the things that have happened," third baseman and team leader Evan Longoria said. "Things really have probably gone completely opposite of what we would have expected or wanted to this point. But the good thing is we're finding a way to win games."

That challenge is likely to increase going forward, specifically as they try to cobble together a rotation — at least until around June 1 when Cobb and Jeremy Hellickson are targeted to return — with pitchers less talented and less experienced than they typically have.

And, given the level of competition in the rugged American League East, usually need.

"I wouldn't consider it a crisis," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "It's not the ideal situation. I'm at like DEFCON 3 personally, so that's not that bad — there's five levels, right? We're going to be just fine. There's no doubt in my mind."

Ace David Price, manager Joe Maddon and executive vice president Andrew Friedman all join in that chorus. They share confidence in whom they have in the rotation now — with Erik Bedard and Cesar Ramos currently joining Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi — and express faith in the remaining options in the minors, which include Nathan Karns, Enny Romero, Mike Montgomery and, when his PED suspension ends in late May, Alex Colome.

Friedman all but said they don't plan to get outside help.

Though they cite last year, when they survived Cobb, Price and Moore all missing extended time, in the four previous seasons the Rays used no more than eight starters. When Bedard takes the mound this week, he'll be their seventh already.

"It's unusual for us to be in this position, but we like our choices and we like our choices that are still in Triple A," Maddon said. "Listen, it happens to everybody every year, it's happening to us right now.

"I still fully believe we're going to win with the guys we have out there. I'm not looking for anybody to step up, I'm not looking for anybody to do anything more. It's just go out there and play and do your jobs."

It's not that simple, of course, and different players will respond differently. Archer and Odorizzi are now in higher-leverage slots, Ramos and Bedard in more important roles. Even Price, with all his accomplishments, admits, "We just have to kind of step up."

And making the whole situation even more difficult — bringing up those perfect storm references — is that the hitters aren't doing much to help in the time of need. Or much at all.

Whether it has been good pitching they've faced, as some suggest, or bad luck on balls they've hit, as others do, the bottom line is that the offense has bottomed out: In their past eight games, the Rays have scored only 14 runs total (a whopping 1.75 per game) while hitting .192 with a .564 on-base plus slugging percentage.

Here, the Rays preach patience, citing statistics verifying how hard they've hit the ball and how disciplined they've been at the plate, validating the quality of their at-bats.

Maddon says there's no reason for concern and definitely not change. "I want them to know they are doing a lot of good things," he said. "The process is great, the outcome hasn't shown up yet. …

"I know we're going to start hitting. We might have to win that 7-6 game or that 5-4 or that 8-7 game now which we had not been doing to this point. It's a one-run game in a different form."

As eventfully bad as it has been so far, the 14 games obviously provide a very small sample — in Bucs terms, not yet halftime of the second game — and one the Rays insist won't be transforming or defining.

Friedman said they remain just as optimistic as they were at the start of having a successful — even special — season, and that with "an all-hands-on-deck approach" they'll get through the injuries and play well.

"It'll be a tester for us,'' Longoria said. "It'll be something at the end of the year we'll either look back and say that was the time that made us, that we came together right then and figured out how to do it as a team. … Or it could go the other way.''

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.

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