BOSTON — The Rays starters are supposed to be among the best in baseball, a rotation stocked with young, talented, healthy and successful pitchers who will keep the team in playoff contention throughout the season, and then beyond.
But they haven't looked too good thus far, in what they've done nor in how they've tried to do it, the primary reason the Rays were looking down again Saturday evening after another ugly Boston beatdown, this one 13-5.
Jeremy Hellickson, so brilliant in his season debut Sunday, was the latest disappointment. He said he felt fine starting three days after being struck on the head by a ball during batting practice, but he allowed five runs on a career-most three home runs.
It was the third consecutive game, and fourth in their eight, that a Tampa Bay starter didn't work more than five innings, which has had a trickle-down and traumatizing effect on the shorthanded bullpen.
"We have to do a better job as a starting pitching group," manager Joe Maddon said. "We're putting a lot of pressure on our bullpen right now. We've got to get deeper into the game. We've just got to get back to our normal game, pitching better as starters."
The starters have a 4.35 ERA while averaging less than six innings per outing (47? innings) and have allowed 25 walks, which might be an indication of the problem. The relievers have a 12.40 ERA over their 20? innings, and walked 12.
The Rays (4-4) averaged nearly 6? innings per start last year in throwing an AL-high 1,058 innings, and worked at least six in 122 of their 162 games.
"We're walking way too many guys," Maddon said. "Guys maybe are trying to be a little too fine with our stuff. We have great stuff. We have to get ahead of hitters like we normally do and then finish them off and make them put the ball in play with some more weak contact.
"We've gotten away from our basic strength and that's really to attack the strike zone and permit our defense to play."
Hellickson had all kinds of issues, needing 99 pitches to get through his five innings. (Against the Yankees, he threw 118 for 8?).
Maddon said his location wasn't good and his pitch selection, working with veteran catcher Jose Molina, questionable, specifically in not using more off-speed pitches.
"He's got all these different weapons, and he didn't utilize all of his weapons properly," Maddon said. "I think there were times maybe he lacked a little creativity of which he's capable of, that's all. Maybe a little too predictable."
Hellickson said he didn't have his normally effective changeup, which might have been the root of the problem: "I need to mix it up a little bit."
The Rays took a 4-0 first-inning lead as DH Luke Scott returned and hit a three-run homer. But the offense went quiet, logging just four hits after the first, and their final 14 batters going down in order.
And by the end of the long day, there was a jarring stat: 12 or more runs allowed in consecutive games for the first time since the ghastly green Devil Rays days of 2007.
"You can blame it on a lot of stuff," Molina said. "The bottom line is that we're not doing the job."