Thursday, December 14, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Stay strong? Heck, stay mediocre, Rays

ST. PETERSBURG

They are not too bad. They are not very good.

They are mediocre.

So far, they have played 22 games. They have won 10 and lost 12. That's about as mediocre as it gets.

This is where the Rays sit after dropping two of three to a Twins team that's pretty mediocre itself.

None of this is surprising.

The pitching staff is in tatters, busted apart by injuries. Some days the Rays hit, some days they don't. Some days they pitch, most days of late, they don't.

When you play like that, you end up being mediocre.

The Rays are exactly where they deserve to be at this still early point of the season and that's exactly where they need to stay until their pitching staff gets healthy again.

Just keep treading water until starting pitcher Alex Cobb returns. Just keep afloat until starter Jeremy Hellickson comes back. Just stay in the race until the bats find a more consistent stroke.

Just hang around.

These are dangerous times for the Rays as they head out on a 10-game road trip to Chicago, Boston and New York. If they return home a mediocre ballclub, that would be a good thing.

If they can stay mediocre until early June or whenever the time comes that their pitching rotation begins to resemble a real major-league rotation again, the Rays give themselves a chance.

Not that manager Joe Maddon is ready to accept mediocrity.

"I don't concede anything," he said after Thursday's loss. "I understand the concept. And, of course, you want to stay thick in the pack, but from my perspective, it's about going out there and attempting to win every night in spite of the odds."

These days, the odds are long three nights out of five. Or, more specifically, the nights when David Price and Chris Archer are not pitching.

With Cobb, Hellickson and Matt Moore on the shelf with injuries, Price and Archer are the only tried-and-true starters in the rotation at the moment. They also happen to be the only ones delivering.

In the games those two have started, the Rays are 8-6. That's a .571 winning percentage. Spread that over an entire season, and you're talking 92 wins. Pretty good.

But in the games started by fill-ins Jake Odorizzi, Cesar Ramos and Erik Bedard, the Rays are 2-6. Pretty bad.

Yes, these are very small samples, but does anyone believe the Rays can hang around the top of the American League East for the long haul with the likes of Odorizzi, Ramos and Bedard?

The thing is, you can't get mad at those guys. You can't blame them. They are what they are.

Odorizzi should be in the minors. Ramos should be in the bullpen. Bedard should be out of baseball if he keeps pitching like Thursday when he gave up five hits, five walks and four runs in only four innings.

To expect more from them would not be fair.

With Alex Colome suspended 50 games for using a banned substance, the Rays are missing four of their top seven starters. Archer should be easing into the rotation as a No. 4 starter. Instead, he's suddenly under intense pressure as the Rays' No. 2. Only Price, as the staff's ace, is pitching in the slot he belongs.

No wonder the Rays are hovering around .500. It's to the point where Price and Archer cannot afford to have lousy starts or the Rays could go into a tailspin.

Meantime, the bullpen seems overworked most nights and goes into nearly every game running on fumes.

"Sometimes you are a little bit overmatched," Maddon said. "Sometimes the game begins and you know the pendulum swings a little bit more to their side than yours, but I've never felt that .500 was adequate or good."

In order for the Rays to stay in the hunt, two things need to happen.

One is out of their control. They need the rest of the division to putter around .500, too. So far, that has happened. No team is off to a hot start. No team is pulling away.

The other is the Rays need to find a way to score more runs. With a seven-run output Thursday, the Rays are averaging 4.2 runs a game. Not too shabby, but not nearly good enough when you're giving up, interestingly enough, 4.2 runs per game.

The Rays are a team that has always been built on pitching and defense, but they are a team that desperately needs the offense to do the heavy lifting for the next month or so.

The offense cranked out seven runs and 13 hits Thursday and it still wasn't good enough because the pitching was so crummy. And we shouldn't expect the pitching to get much better until it gets healthier, maybe by June. The problem is, there is no telling when exactly that might be.

"I have no idea when those dates are," Maddon said. "I cannot even think about that. Honestly, for me, when I walk in and you're dealing with the group that we have, it's about me trying to help make this group better."

Forget better. Just keep them mediocre. That might be the best the Rays can hope for.

For right now, anyway.

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