CLEVELAND — The Rays, reeling from losses (both on the field, and in personnel), got off to the start they needed Wednesday night.
They shook off a nearly-two hour rain delay and racked up five-first inning runs — off a left-handed starter, too.
But no matter how short-handed the lineup has been —minus Jason Bartlett, minus Pat Burrell — it hasn't been the offense that has kept them from regaining their pennant-winning form.
It's been the inconsistency in their pitching, and Wednesday's 12-7 loss to the last-place Indians was another example.
Right-hander Andy Sonnanstine, given a five-run lead before he threw his first pitch, gave up a season-high eight runs — and two leads — in a three-inning outing.
Two days earlier the Rays blew a 10-run lead in the largest collapse in club history, and now face the prospect of getting swept today by a team that entered the series with the American League's worst record.
"We just gave up two huge leads here, that's just inappropriate," manager Joe Maddon said. "We have to do a better job of pitching overall. As a group we just have to get better. We were in a position to win two games here."
The fourth-place Rays (23-26) are just five games out of first place in the AL East, but their starting pitchers, who were so huge in their World Series run a year ago, continue to be plagued by short outings and inconsistency. Rays starters have lasted five or fewer innings in 15 of 49 games this season, burdening one of the league's most-used bullpens. The Rays had 47 such outings all of last season.
The Rays staff ranks ninth in the AL (4.61), after finishing second last season (3.82).
"We need to do a little bit better, especially me," Sonnanstine said. "But we just can't figure out why we can't win here."
Sonnanstine (3-5) said he feels fine physically, he's just been having problems with location, getting hurt by a lot of pitches up in the zone.
And he's had an incredibly tough time getting out Indians centerfielder Ben Francisco. Francisco, who hit a three-run homer and an RBI single off him Wednesday and is 8-for-9 with five homers lifetime against the Rays' No. 4 starter.
"He's hitting everything I'm throwing right now," Sonnanstine said. "So I've gotta figure out a way to get him out."
Maddon also couldn't pin-point the problem.
"Obviously, Francisco, I'm sure (Sonnanstine) never wants to see him again," Maddon said. "(Francisco) is definitely not on his Christmas card list, I know that. … That's incredible. And they're all three-run homers, not even like solo shots. I don't have any strong answers. I really don't. It's kind of baffling actually."
The game was delayed 1 hour, 55 minutes, but that didn't initially faze the Rays, who racked up five first-inning runs off left-hander Zach Jackson, recently called up from Triple A.
B.J. Upton and Carl Crawford led off with singles, and Evan Longoria added a single to pick up his 50th RBI of the season. Willy Aybar came through with an RBI single and Ben Zobrist an RBI double, and rightfielder Gabe Kapler capped the rally with a two-run single.
But Sonnanstine gave it all back in the second. The Indians started their five-run rally quietly, with a one-out walk and infield hit.
Francisco delivered the big blow, a three-run homer over the leftfield fence. Grady Sizemore tacked on an RBI double to tie the score.
The Rays got the lead back in the third, with Zobrist (who went 2-for-3) getting things started with a walk, and stealing second. He moved to third on a Kapler groundout and scored when third baseman Jhonny Peralta made a throwing error to first on what was potentially an inning-ending grounder by Michel Hernandez.
But, once again, Sonnanstine couldn't hold the lead, and Francisco was again a big part of it. In the third, the Indians got a two-out rally going with a walk and single before Francisco ripped an RBI single up the middle, the first of three consecutive one-run singles by the Indians that put them up 8-6. Sonnanstine, who entered the game having gone 0-2 with a 7.14 ERA in two previous starts in Cleveland, was relieved by Joe Nelson to start the fourth.
Longoria pulled the Rays to within a run with a solo homer in the fourth, his 12th of the season. But the Indians got some insurance in the fifth, scoring four off Nelson thanks to a two-run double by Victor Martinez and two-run homer by Shin-Soo Choo.
Nelson said he's recent struggles have also been a matter of location. He has typically been tough on left-handed hitters, but Choo (a lefty) hit a pitch that missed its spot.
"Choo hit a ball that if I locate, he doesn't hit," Nelson said. "I throw it down the middle, it got hit a long way. It's a continuing story with me recently, and it's got to stop. It's frustrating."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.