Tampa Bay Rays' bats feel homefield handicap

ST. PETERSBURG — Some years ago, you paid good money to see Ben Grieve, Gerald Williams and Jason Tyner masquerade as big-league outfielders at Tropicana Field.

The year after that, you actually witnessed an infield of Steve Cox, Brent Abernathy, Chris Gomez and Jared Sandberg on a nightly basis in this very ballpark.

Yet through all the comedy, heartbreak and boredom, you have never seen an offense inside of Tropicana Field quite so anemic as the Tampa Bay Rays of 2011.

Yes, given the history of this franchise, that's a bold claim. But, game after game, these Rays seem intent on establishing their place in infamy.

Through a nice, round 50 dates at Tropicana Field this season, the Rays are averaging 3.22 runs per game. That's fewer runs than the expansion Rays of 1998. Fewer than the 106-loss Rays of 2002. That's fewer runs than any Rays team has ever scored at home.

It's truly a remarkable distinction when you think about it. Of all the sad shortstops and wretched rightfielders in this franchise's history, how can this lineup be even worse?

The third baseman is a superstar. The rightfielder played in an All-Star Game less than a month ago. The second baseman is one of the top hitters in the league.

And yet there are nights when they need a GPS to find their way to third base.

"It is really awkward to see us hit here, and then hit on the road. It's like two different teams," manager Joe Maddon said. "Why? I wish I knew, because the work is the same. These guys work. These guys are great. They're self-starters, they're not excuse-makers. We do everything right. We're just not hitting at home.

"If I had another thought, I swear I'd give it to you."

You saw it again Tuesday night against the Blue Jays. The Rays loaded the bases with no outs in the second inning, and failed to score. They hit into a double play in the fourth, and had a caught-stealing in the fifth.

The only thing the Rays had going for them was the guy in the lineup who didn't know any better. Rookie Desmond Jennings was making his 2011 debut at Tropicana Field, and obviously didn't get the memo from the home office.

Jennings' home run in the sixth inning was the only thing separating the Rays from their third shutout in the past six home games.

So is it the home cooking? The field's turf? The mayor's tort?

Actually, chances are, this is just a fluke. A statistical oddity. It's true, this team is built for pitching and defense and so you shouldn't expect scoreboard fireworks every night. But the disparity in offense between home and road is just plain bizarre.

Put this team in another ZIP code, and the Rays score runs at a rate almost 60 percent higher. Tampa Bay's average of 5.06 runs per game on the road is better than the Yankees. Better than the Rangers.

The Red Sox are the only team in the American League scoring more runs away from home than the Rays.

"It's weird. The first inning of games on the road, you can actually feel an energy about our offense. The first inning at home, you don't feel the same energy," Maddon said. "Why? I have no idea. The work is the same. The prep is the same. This has been a very successful spot for us, the Trop has, over the last few years.'

You want to know how James Shields can have a 3.03 ERA and still be a .500 pitcher? It's actually pretty easy when your entire roster is hitting .224 at home.

You want to know how David Price can be in the top five in the league in strikeouts and still have a losing record? It makes perfect sense when you realize your offense has been held to two runs or less in 20 of its 50 home games.

For the most part, Rays pitchers have held their tongues when it comes to discussing the guys who are paid to swing bats. But the reality is the offense has an impact on them.

They walk to the mound at Tropicana Field knowing that their chances of winning are going to be slim if they gave up more than a run or two.

"I think there's definitely a thought in the back of their minds when they pitch that, 'I really can't make that many mistakes.' " Maddon said. "I can't deny that, and I can't say that I blame them right now."

With a bottle of NyQuil in place of a chardonnay on his office desk, Maddon looked every bit like a manager fighting both a head cold and a scoring slump.

He ran his hands through his hair, and then looked up with a wry grin.

"It does prove one thing," he said. "That we're not cheating at home."

Look away!

Barring an avalanche of offense in the next two months, the 2011 Rays will set a franchise record for the fewest runs scored at Tropicana Field in a season.

YearRuns per game

20113.22 *

19983.92

20014.29

20024.33

20104.33

20004.36

* Through 50 games

Tampa Bay Rays' bats feel homefield handicap 08/03/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 8, 2011 1:23pm]

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