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Shutout epitomizes Tampa Bay Rays' offensive struggles

A true baseball fan always celebrates a perfect game. That's just part of the deal.

If you love the game, you are morally, legally and by all other means required to love an afternoon of perfection. And you are compelled to ponder the implausibility and remarkability of retiring 27 hitters in succession.

Think about that for a moment. Some of the greatest pitchers of your lifetime — Roger Clemens, Bob Gibson, Greg Maddux, Tom Seaver — never pitched a perfect game. Some of the greatest pitchers of past generations — Bob Feller, Whitey Ford, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson — never pitched a perfect game. As a feat, it is high on the scale of magical and rare.

So good for you, Mark Buehrle. Yesterday will be yours forever.

And now that we have arrived at today, here is another thought:

The Rays aren't hitting a lick.

This has actually been going on for quite some time. It just took a perfect game to bring it into focus.

For much of the season, the Rays have been near the top of the American League in runs scored. They have been at or near the top in batting average, slugging percentage, walks and stolen bases. And more and more, these numbers are looking like an illusion.

The truth is, the Rays have been very inconsistent scoring runs. In some ways, they have been more inconsistent than last season. Buehrle's no-hitter made it 11 times in 17 July games that the Rays have been held to three runs or less.

How is this possible on a team with five All-Stars in the starting lineup? On a team with one guy (Carlos Peña) tied for the league lead in home runs, another guy (Carl Crawford) leading the league in stolen bases and guys near the top in batting average (Jason Bartlett), RBIs (Evan Longoria) and combined on-base percentage/slugging percentage (Ben Zobrist)?

The problem is the Rays have fattened up a lot of their statistics in blowout games. They scored 15 each against the Yankees and Marlins. They scored 14 in one game against the Red Sox and 13 in another.

Those kind of add-on stats can be great for the backs of baseball cards and for agents looking to negotiate offseason raises. But day to day, the offense is not always showing up.

Last year, when the Rays had a mediocre offense that was carried by the pitching staff, they scored three runs or fewer in 37.6 percent of their games. This year, with an offense that was supposedly bigger and better than ever, they have scored three runs or fewer in 41.6 percent of their games.

The Rays have now scored three runs or fewer in 40 games. By comparison, the Yankees have been held that low 23 times and the Angels 29. The Rays are even worse than the last-place Orioles (35) and Indians (39).

"Overall, our run scoring is very strong," said executive vice president Andrew Friedman. "But if you dig into it, you'll see that the distribution of runs has been a problem. The distribution is causing more problems than the total numbers would suggest."

There are all sorts of reasons and theories to explain this. You could point at B.J. Upton, Pat Burrell and Dioner Navarro and say they have not hit nearly as well as you would have expected. You can say the Rays have become too dependent on power and are no longer adept at manufacturing runs by moving runners over or getting them home from third base with less than two outs. You can say too many guys have been too streaky, with Longoria (.154), Peña (.145) and Upton (.200) having particular problems in July.

Or you could wonder about a lineup where the first six hitters are on pace to strike out more than 100 times, including the cleanup hitter, who is barreling toward 200.

The problem with the up-and-down nature of these guys is that it makes it difficult for a manager or GM to come up with a solution.

Do you really want to trade for a first baseman when Peña is your best power hitter and leads the American League in walks? Would anybody in their right mind bench Longoria, even as his batting average slid from .333 to .273?

The bottom line is these guys should be better than this. They've shown in the past that they are better than this. Heck, they've shown it this season, as long as the score is 11-2.

In a way, it's amazing Tampa Bay has survived July without falling out of contention. By all rights, a team scoring 3.4 runs per game has no business winning eight out of 17. The Rays have been fortunate that, as the hitting has gone downhill, the pitching has gotten better.

Still, it is clear the Rays cannot keep up this pace. The offense is going to have to start showing up more than every few nights.

No one is asking them to be perfect.

Just a little less imperfect.

Shutout epitomizes Tampa Bay Rays' offensive struggles 07/23/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 24, 2009 9:40am]
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