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Tampa Bay Rays' sore pitchers more worrisome than sore bats

The Rays offense is a mess. And we knew that before Brandon Morrow turned up the humiliation on Sunday.

We knew it when Dallas Braden threw a perfect game. We knew it when Edwin Jackson threw a no-hitter. We knew it when Boston and Cleveland each threw one-hitters, and we knew it when the trade deadline passed without an extra bat coming to the rescue.

This lineup is far too inconsistent, and it has been that way for almost two years now. So as frustrating as Morrow's one-hit, 17-strikeout afternoon might have been, I doubt if anyone was overcome with grief or shock.

Because in the long run, another shutout isn't nearly as disturbing as the news that Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis have both returned to Tampa Bay to have their shoulders examined today by Dr. Koco Eaton.

The Rays have already proved they can survive with a spotty offense. They've been able to do it for more than four months because they have the best combination of pitching and defense in the American League.

And that is why you should be concerned today.

For the aches in their shoulders could be far more crippling than the holes in their bats.

The only way the Rays can see the 2010 AL pennant is by standing on top of the mound. If they outlast the Red Sox, if they overcome the Yankees, it will be because they gave up fewer runs in the season's final days.

And yes, I'm aware Tampa Bay is third in the American League in runs scored. That's a bit of a mirage. This team scores a lot of worthless runs in a lot of meaningless moments, i.e. Saturday's 17-11 loss. The true key to the season is run prevention.

So you better be hoping for a standing ovation in Dr. Eaton's waiting room today.

To be honest, the Rays already have defied the odds when it comes to keeping pitchers healthy. When Andy Sonnanstine took over for Niemann on Sunday, it was the first time in nearly 14 months that a Tampa Bay pitcher missed a start because of an injury.

You can thank pitching coach Jim Hickey for the program he has the starters on. You can thank manager Joe Maddon for constantly monitoring their workload. You can thank the organizational philosophies regarding the handling of young pitchers.

This is why the Rays had Jeremy Hellickson come up from Triple-A Durham to make a start last week, to give the rest of the rotation a rest. There were no warning signs with Niemann or Davis, just a concern about the number of innings and pitches for the entire staff.

Tampa Bay is the only team in the majors with all five starters above 2,000 pitches on the season.

Davis is particularly worrisome because he looked so shaky in his last start against Minnesota at Tropicana Field. This is a guy whose fastball has been in the 93 mph range for most of the season but was sitting at 88-89 mph most of the day against the Twins.

"The reason was to give them time so that we could avoid this," Maddon told Times beat writer Marc Topkin in Toronto on Sunday. "The intent was preventative medicine."

(And don't blame the change in the rotation last week for the problems with Niemann and Davis. Both have been more accustomed to pitching on at least five days' rest than four this season, so the extra day was not unusual.)

Best-case scenario is Davis and Niemann come skipping out of the office today hand in hand, but I'm not holding out much hope for that. The logical guess is that one of them ends up on the disabled list for precautionary reasons, which allows Hellickson to be recalled to make the start Tuesday night in Detroit and then either Davis or Niemann comes back on Saturday at home.

If that's the extent of the problem — one guy on the DL and a handful of missed starts between them — the Rays should be able to absorb it. Even if the Rays wanted to monitor Hellickson's workload, he is still a heck of an alternative in a pennant race.

Things get stickier if both Niemann and Davis need extended time off. Sonnanstine was outstanding in an emergency role Sunday, but it's unreasonable to expect that too often.

And then there is the trickle-down effect on the bullpen, particularly considering Hellickson was probably a candidate to take on the David Price late-inning role of 2008.

All in all, the past five days have been Tampa Bay's most difficult stretch of the season. The Rays have lost five in a row, fallen out of first place, put Carlos Peña on the disabled list and had to readjust the starting rotation.

Safe to say, they are in need of a victory lap today.

Preferably in the doctor's office.

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

Tampa Bay Rays' sore pitchers more worrisome than sore bats 08/08/10 [Last modified: Monday, August 9, 2010 7:35am]
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