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Tampa Bay Rays at a loss to explain offensive extremes

Carlos Peña can in some ways stand in for the schizophrenic nature of the Rays offense: He has 16 home runs but is batting .201 and leads the American League with 83 strikeouts.

Associated Press

Carlos Peña can in some ways stand in for the schizophrenic nature of the Rays offense: He has 16 home runs but is batting .201 and leads the American League with 83 strikeouts.

So the weekend series was a disaster, and the Rays offense was an embarrassment.

These things happen in baseball, right? The season is long, and the highs and lows should not be taken too seriously.

Which is usually true, except around here where the extremes are becoming the norm. This might be the only offense in baseball where the most recognizable swings are the moods.

You want volume?

The Rays scored 12 in a game against the White Sox on April 21 and came back the next night to score 10. They scored 10 one night against the Athletics and 11 the next night against the Royals.

You want to hit the mute button?

The Rays scored four runs in a three-game series against the Red Sox. They got seven hits in three games against the Diamondbacks. They put Dallas Braden and Edwin Jackson into the record books.

No team in the American League has had as many extreme scoring games as the Rays. Tampa Bay is tied with the explosive Red Sox and just ahead of the mighty Yankees when it comes to the most games with eight runs or more of offense. On the other hand, the Rays are just behind the woeful Mariners and the pathetic Orioles when it comes to the most games with one run or fewer.

"It's definitely a big problem," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "You're going to have peaks and valleys, but the concern is how easily and how often our offense gets shut down. I don't need so many peaks with eight runs, but the valleys are killing us."

So how can a team look so good, and so awful, on so many occasions?

Is it the way the team is constructed? Is it the lack of a consistent approach? Can it really be written off as a fluke? There are some vague theories and assumptions, but no one in the clubhouse or the front office has an emphatic answer.

"It's a strange thing, and I don't have an explanation for it," hitting coach Derek Shelton said. "I wish I did."

If you go by raw numbers, the Rays look like one of the better hitting teams in the AL. They steal bases, they draw walks, they have a half-dozen guys with 20-homer seasons in their careers. Even with all of their recent woes, they are fourth in the league in runs scored.

The problem is that not all runs are equal.

"A lot of times our offensive numbers are skewed in a sense because we build up this big cache of numbers in a few good games and it averages out better than it actually is," manager Joe Maddon said.

Maddon also is at a loss to explain the bipolar nature of his offense, although he suspects strikeouts have something to do with it. Tampa Bay leads the AL in strikeouts, which, by itself, is not an insurmountable problem. The Rays were near the top of the league in strikeouts in 2008 when they won the pennant, and Maddon has never bemoaned third strikes in certain situations.

The problem is there is a disconnect with this offense. High strikeouts are often a byproduct of power hitters. And the Rays are lagging far behind in home run totals this season. They are slightly below league average for homers, something they have not done over a full season since 2005. Combine that with low batting averages, and the speed and walks become far less valuable.

"We're way over the top strikeout-wise," Maddon said. "There's just a lot of non-productivity involved in punchouts where the ball is not moved at all."

The Rays were aware of the run distribution problem last season, and that is one of the reasons Shelton made situational hitting a priority this spring. The idea was that the Rays needed to learn how to manufacture runs instead of waiting for the big inning.

During the first six weeks of the season, there might not have been a better team when it came to getting runners home. The Rays were hitting with runners in scoring position, and they were making productive outs with runners on third. There was no way they could keep up that pace all season, but the results have fallen more sharply than expected.

"When you score runs at the clip we did early in the season, you almost get to the point where that's your expectation. I think we knew all along we weren't going to continue to hit .380 with runners in scoring position," Shelton said. "But you have to be able grind through these times, and we haven't done as good of a job with that as we should.

"We haven't scored a lot of runs recently and we need to do a better job in situational hitting."

The other solution might be changes on the roster. The Rays have gotten less production out of the DH spot than most contending teams, so they might look at available hitters as the trade deadline nears next month. That, however, remains a long shot.

Instead, the Rays are hopeful the extremes will begin to even out. They might not return to the blowout victories of April, but they're confident they will not continue averaging 3.0 runs a game as they have the past two weeks.

This team was built with the idea that its pitching could carry it into the postseason.

The question is how much weight the offense expects the rotation to carry.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Offensive struggles

22 Games with eight runs or more, tied for the best in the AL.

14 Games with one run or fewer, third worst in the AL.

307 Walks, second in the AL.

590 Strikeouts, first in the AL.

Tampa Bay Rays at a loss to explain offensive extremes 06/28/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 29, 2010 3:25pm]
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