ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays just can't stop losing.
Saturday, it was two more players — DH Luke Scott going back on the disabled list, starter Alex Cobb knocked out in the second inning with a bruised leg — and yet another game, this one 2-1 to the Mariners.
As many problems as the Rays have had, the most troubling continues to be their impotent offense. And if they are planning to make a serious run for a playoff spot — which, despite a 49-46 record, remains entirely possible given the crowded AL wild-card competition — it seems increasingly evident they have to do something besides continue to wait for Evan Longoria's eventual return from the disabled list.
"It's just in and out," said centerfielder B.J. Upton, who failed in one of the biggest spots Saturday. "We're being pitched tough. Some guys are being pitched tougher than others. We've just got to keep going. It's not going to go on like this forever."
But since sweeping a day-night doubleheader from the Phillies on June 24 — and who thought that would be the highlight of their summer? — the Rays have been held to four or fewer runs in 18 of their 23 games and are batting .230, only .194 with runners in scoring position.
Saturday was more of the same, as the 2-0 hole Cobb put them in with another rough start turned out to be too much, and a waste of a sterling four-inning, six-strikeout relief effort by Cesar Ramos.
"Just needed three runs to get it done," manager Joe Maddon said. "Just could not do it."
Their shortcoming has been a team effort, but Hideki Matsui — the once-proud slugger — has become the focal point of their failures, booed by segments of the Tropicana Field crowd of 18,800 after another 0-for-4, the first three times up with men on, dropping his average to .149.
With Scott out, the Rays apparently will stick with Matsui at least for a while longer, though perhaps in a lesser role as outfielder Sam Fuld seems likely to come off the disabled list by Tuesday.
Maddon thinks Matsui is trying too hard. Matsui, 38, remains confident he can help.
"There's been opportunities there and I haven't been able to make anything out of it," Matsui said through interpreter Roger Kahlon. "There's nothing wrong with the fans booing. The best thing you can do is try to make the most of the next opportunity."
Shut out into the sixth by Seattle lefty Jason Vargas, who is 3-0, 1.77 over his past five starts and has 10 wins overall, the Rays had a prime opportunity.
They had one run in, thanks to two singles and a throwing error by rightfielder Ichiro Suzuki, and the tying run on second with no outs. Maddon opted to play for the tie and had Sean Rodriguez bunt Desmond Jennings to third.
But Upton swung at the first pitch from Shawn Kelley and popped up, and Carlos Peña — hitting .129 with runners in scoring position, second lowest in the majors — went down flailing against lefty Oliver Perez.
"That's just been our biggest problem this year," Maddon said, "just the inability to win some close games based on being able to score the run when we need to."
That's only part of it.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]