Saturday, April 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Surprisingly, pitching fails Rays

If the disappointment had come from the usual suspects, perhaps you could better understand it.

For instance, if the betrayal had come from the offense, if the bats were as small and powerless as they were in the old days, you would simply shake your head and sigh. Frustrating times at the plate are familiar to Rays fans, after all. You have taken that ride before.

If the failure had come defensively, you might even understand that. Over the past half-dozen seasons, the Rays have been pretty good defensively in most years. But last year, the gloves became leaden and the throws became wild. You have seen spotty play in the field, too.

But this? Pitching?

There are times you wish to rub your eyes. For a very long time, pitching has been the thing you could count on with the Rays. They could start, and they could hold, and they could finish.

Even on nights when nothing else seemed to be clicking for Tampa Bay, you could expect strength from the pitching mound.

More than a quarter of the way through a season, however, and the Rays have been shaky. And the most trustworthy things of all — the strong arms of the team — have been the most questionable.

David Price, for instance.

Fernando Rodney, for instance.

How do you explain this? Last year, they were the American League's best starting pitcher and its best closer. Price won the Cy Young Award, and Rodney was fifth, and the raging debate was whether a starter or a closer was more valuable to a team.

These days, Price is on the disabled list for the first time in his career. He is 1-4, and the Rays have won only two of his nine starts. Rodney has already blown more saves than he did all of last year. Even before Price was hurt, he struggled with velocity. Rodney struggled with control.

Meanwhile, fourth place is starting to get a little more comfortable.

The truth of it is that, for a change, the Rays offense has been pretty darn good. It can struggle against good pitching, but what offense can't? Evan Longoria is off to an MVP-type season. James Loney has been shockingly good.

And the defense? For the most part, it has been very good, too. That part of Loney's game isn't a surprise at first base. Longoria has been stellar at third.

Still, it adds up to a team spinning its wheels around the .500 mark.

Given Price's struggles, given Rodney's, it isn't a surprise. It was tough enough on the Rays to lose James Shields from the rotation and Wade Davis from the bullpen. But if you add Price and Rodney, the void becomes too large for a team to overcome. One of them, a team might be able to survive. Not both of them.

For much of the season, you could add Jake McGee to that list. McGee has made a bit of a comeback — he hasn't given up a hit or a run in four straight outings. But his ERA is still in the 8s, and he has given up 10 walks in 15⅓ innings. That's a long way from the overpowering McGee of a year ago.

All in all, it is orange sky stuff. On the Rays, you just don't expect to see it. From the time Andrew Friedman and his scouts hit town and started collecting arms, pitching has been the Rays' great equalizer. They ran pitcher after pitcher to the mound, young and strong and healthy. And it whittled the other team's offense down to the size of the Rays'.

That's one of the most alarming things about Price going on the DL. Except for Jeff Niemann, few Rays starters have ended up there since the team became a contender. Since 2007, the year manager Joe Maddon arrived, Rays pitchers have started at least 29 games in a season 23 times.

And the bullpen? If the Rays had a gift, it was they could piece together a bullpen at bottom dollar and make it formidable.

In baseball, as in life, there is a fall-back-to-earth element. Price was on top of the world; it figures he would settle back down a bit. Rodney was almost perfect. He was bound to be somewhat less effective this year.

Not like this, however. Rodney has blown three of his 10 save opportunities, his walks already equal all of last year, and his ERA is 5.28 compared to 0.60.

Price. His ERA has risen from 2.56 to 5.24. His home runs are up. His wins are down.

Together, the two of them are head-scratching stuff. They were two of the Rays' biggest strengths coming into the season. Instead, they have been two of their biggest questions. They were the start and finish of it.

For the Rays, the biggest problem is this: For all of their struggles, the Rays need Price and Rodney as much as ever. They will not play important games in September without them.

And so fans are left with little to do but grit their teeth and try to ride it out.

Just asking, but why couldn't it have been the offense?

 
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