DETROIT — The way the Rays were hitting — or, more specifically, not hitting — during the Tigers series, they were fortunate to take two of three games at Comerica Park.
Their pitching and defense have continued to sparkle, a reason why they were able to end a rough 2-4 road trip with a series win. But manager Joe Maddon said "our standards are set really high" on winning the American League East.
And if they plan on completing that feat, Maddon says their "long-term spell" of situational-hitting struggles must turn around. That point hit home after the Rays lost to the Tigers 3-2 Wednesday afternoon, completing a three-game stretch in which they went 4-for-35 with runners in scoring position.
"We just have to do better," Maddon said. "We have to be able to score some runs when we have those opportunities. The (strikeout) is really hurting us, we're not giving ourselves a chance to move the ball. Our effort is wonderful, the defense is great, the baserunning. … We've just got to do better with the bats."
The Rays (69-45) are still in a good spot, just 11/2 games behind the first-place Yankees after New York rallied to beat the Rangers as they head home to begin a six-game homestand Friday. But they've seen too many games like Wednesday, when they stranded runners on second base in the first, third and fifth innings and left the bases loaded in the second.
"I think myself personally, I've been putting a little bit too much pressure on myself in those situations," said third baseman Evan Longoria, who went 1-for-4. "And when you do that, it becomes a lot tougher thing to do. So I think as a group, probably the same thing, we're just pressing a little bit and starting to feel a little bit of that playoff buzz and playoff intensity, and just putting too much pressure on ourselves.
"We need to get back to having fun and do the things that made us successful in the beginning of the year."
The loss spoiled another strong outing by right-hander Matt Garza (11-7), who gave up three runs over 52/3 innings. He wiggled out of bases-loaded jams in the third and fifth, getting Jhonny Peralta to line out to end both threats. Garza said it came down to "one pitch," a low two-seam fastball that former Durant High standout Ryan Raburn hit for a two-run homer in the sixth.
"The last start against (Raburn), I beat him with the same pitch," Garza said. "He got me, you just tip your cap."
The Rays tipped their caps to Tigers ace Justin Verlander, who pitched well himself over six innings, but they remained frustrated over their missed opportunities. Former Tiger Matt Joyce had Tampa Bay's lone hit in 13 at-bats with runners in scoring position but also got doubled off second in the sixth after Brennan Boesch made a spectacular diving catch in right.
Maddon talked about the need to return to the "GTMI" (get-the-man-in) attitude they had preached in spring training and executed so well early in the season. He knows the offense, which he says has underachieved, is certainly capable.
"We've got to figure out a way to get it done," Maddon said. "We just have to. That's who we have to be. And that's within our abilities. It's one of those things, I'm not asking more than we're capable of."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.