NEW YORK — Three weeks ago, it made no sense to panic.
Jeff Niemann looked lost coming off the disabled list, but the Rays still had the deepest starting rotation in the American League. Why worry about the postseason when you only need four starters anyway?
Two weeks ago, it seemed too early to get nervous.
James Shields had a couple of rough starts, but the man has been one of the most consistent pitchers in the league for four years. Why worry about the postseason when there's still plenty of time to get right throughout September?
Which brings us to today.
For, today, it is permissible to be concerned. And, today, it is sensible to be uptight. The postseason is now within sight, and Tampa Bay's starting pitching is still struggling.
Matt Garza had another shaky performance Monday, and your psyche probably had another fitful night of sleep. This is no longer just a minor bump in the road. This is not simply a set of bad coincidences.
In case you're keeping score, Rays starting pitchers have a 5.31 ERA and a 4-5 record during September's stretch run. And, worse than that, they have left you feeling as if you no longer know whom to trust.
When it comes to a possible playoff rotation, you begin with David Price. And then you turn the ball over to wishful thinking.
"It's a long year, and the pace they had set was pretty impressive," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "From my perspective, if guys were injured, I'd be a lot more concerned. So right now it's one of those situations where you have to stick with people. And be positive with people. And build people up. Because I think that's the best way to get them back to where they had been.
"That's where we're at. You're absolutely right. We have to do something to make it better."
The problem, in a way, is that we've grown spoiled. Tampa Bay's starting pitching, for the most part, was outstanding for five months. The starters were almost always consistent and, occasionally, brilliant.
It is how the Rays jumped off to such a good start in the AL East, and it is how they hung tight when the offense disappeared in the middle of the summer.
So maybe the rotation deserved a little slack. Perhaps the starters had earned a bit of a rough stretch.
Except, it is coming at absolutely the worst time. And there is a general feeling that Tampa Bay is not nearly strong enough throughout the rest of the lineup to survive a postseason series without stellar starting pitching.
"You really want to get these guys sharp. Absolutely," Maddon said. "Normally in a short series, good pitching pretty much gets it done over any kind of offense. So, for us, it's really important to get our starting pitching back in order. Because they've pretty much carried us all season. More recently, it's been a little different."
During the past five turns through the rotation, Rays starters have had a 5.41 ERA and have thrown barely more than five innings per start. Niemann has not been the same since his shoulder tightened up in August. He has little command and seemingly no confidence. Shields pitched well against the Yankees last week but was knocked out early in his previous two starts. Garza has yet to get an out in the sixth inning in his past three starts. And he has given up five, six and six earned runs in those three appearances.
"Not worried," Garza said. "I know what I have to do. It's just a matter of time to get it back. It's a matter of execution."
Right now, Wade Davis looks like the most consistent starter after Price. And that's not much of a consolation considering he's a rookie who was pitching out of the five hole in the rotation for most of the season.
It's not that the Rays are in desperate need of a victory tonight. Sure, it would be frustrating to lose another game in the standings to the Yankees, but Tampa Bay still has a pretty safe lead in the wild-card picture.
What the Rays do need is a little more confidence in their rotation. What they need to know is that their starters are not breaking down at the most critical point in the season.
"I don't want to say there's plenty of time. There's not plenty of time. But there is time," Maddon said. "We just have to get them back into pitchmaking. We're not as good of pitchmakers as we were earlier this season. When we need to make a pitch we're not making it as good as we did. That's primarily what I'm seeing."
What Maddon is not seeing is a rotation capable of carrying the Rays deep in the postseason.
It was there in April. It was there in May and June and the first part of August.
And if the Rays want to continue, it better make a comeback before October.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]