ST. PETERSBURG — They have their health, manager Joe Maddon said, so there's nothing else to worry about. But nine games into The Season After, the Rays bullpen has some issues, too, and maybe some cause for concern.
Tuesday, it was a tie game that became a five-run defeat. Wednesday was worse, as Grant Balfour, J.P. Howell and Troy Percival combined to turn a one-run lead into a one-run loss they called "tough" and "disappointing."
The Yankees left for their historic home opener with a 4-3 victory and a series win that veteran Andy Pettitte said was important because "We're gonna have to show we can beat them; it's not like we're the defending American League champions."
The Rays (4-5) were left to wonder what, if anything, is wrong with a bullpen that was such a key part of that success.
"I don't know that there's really a reason so far," Percival said. "You get into a funk sometimes, just like you get on a roll. …
"I've seen this happen before and still end up with one of the best bullpens in the league. I wouldn't read into too much unless this goes on for another two or three weeks or something, then this might need to be addressed."
The numbers are ugly, with two losses, a 5.63 ERA and 39 baserunners in 24 innings. Maddon isn't showing any worry, though he rarely does lest the players pick up on it, insisting that with time — "It's very early; we're still getting our feet on the ground" — the relievers will regain their dominance. The extended workload of last season could be a factor, as could the slow pace the relievers were on this spring to compensate for it.
"My biggest concern is always health," Maddon said. "If somebody is not healthy and they're struggling, it's a different issue. If they are healthy and struggling a bit, it just depends on your confidence level. Or maybe you just need more work. So these guys are gonna be just fine."
Wednesday was setting up just as Maddon had scripted it. After five innings from Andy Sonnanstine, five outs from newcomer Joe Nelson and one big out from Balfour, the Rays, playing without slugger Evan Longoria, took a 3-2 lead to the eighth.
But Balfour, who has not looked as aggressive or overpowering as last season, allowed a leadoff double to Derek Jeter. Howell, who talked after the game about still "recovering" from last season, fell behind Johnny Damon and gave up another double that tied the score.
Brian Shouse, the other new addition, got the first out of the ninth. But Percival, in his second adventurous appearance following an injury-shortened 2008 and offseason back surgery, failed to get his part done.
His velocity was okay, in the 89-92 mph range, but his command wasn't. He gave up a double to No. 8 hitter Cody Ransom then, a hard out later, wanted to work Jeter inside but left a fastball over the plate that the Yankees captain turned into a run-scoring single.
"I didn't make the pitch," Percival said. "I'm fine. There's no physical issue at all. My back is fine. My arm is fine. … It was all execution. It wasn't stupidity by any means. I knew what I was trying to do and I didn't execute it."
It has been a common problem.
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.