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Loss to Cubs, Blake Snell outing reveal glaring need for Rays: bullpen

The Rays’ Erasmo Ramirez gives up a tying three-run HR on a 1-2 two-out pitch to light-hitting John Jay in the sixth.
The Rays’ Erasmo Ramirez gives up a tying three-run HR on a 1-2 two-out pitch to light-hitting John Jay in the sixth.
Published Jul. 6, 2017

CHICAGO — You could look at five 0s Blake Snell posted on the old green scoreboard above the Wrigley Field bleachers Wednesday and say the Rays at least seemed to solve one problem: For the first time in 10 starts, the erratic lefty didn't allow a run.

But what Snell's too-short outing really did was emphasize what continues to be the Rays' biggest flaw, and the one that might ultimately — despite all the good they've done — doom their efforts to at least stay in the playoff race for the next couple of months, much less contend:

A dependable bullpen.

"That's the thing from the offseason to now we've talked about," third baseman Evan Longoria said.

It shouldn't be that hard.

But Wednesday was the latest staggering example of the problem.

With Snell, despite the improved strike-throwing and command, once again not working more than five innings — the eighth time this year, 18th in 29 career starts — the Rays needed their relievers to cover 12 outs in protecting a three-run lead.

And that proved to be way too much to ask.

"We're up 3-0 with four innings to play, we shouldn't be losing games 7-3," manager Kevin Cash said.

On this day, Erasmo Ramirez, who used to be dependable, made the biggest mess, coming in to face the bottom half of the Cubs' order, putting two of the first three batters on, then allowing a three-run pinch-hit homer on a 1-and-2 pitch to light-hitting John Jay that can't happen. (Or maybe we should chalk that one up to Joe Maddon magic in the Cubs dugout).

With the lead gone, Cash stayed away from what, for now, are his top relievers, Tommy Hunter and Brad Boxberger, who both worked Tuesday in front of closer Alex Colome, who is having his own issues, which doesn't help the anxiety level.

Rookie lefty Adam Kolarek came on and gave up a couple of hits and two more runs in the seventh. Then Chase Whitley, whose reliability rating also is dropping, allowed two more runs in the eighth.

So just when Boxberger's return and Hunter's improvement give you reason for some faith in the bullpen — assuming you believe Cash and pitching coach Jim Hickey when they say Colome's issues are nothing more than bad pitch execution and selection — the other side of the 'pen gives you cause for fits.

The relievers are not all going to do the job every night, but for Cash to make the right moves, he has to be able to have a good sense of what to expect each night. In other words, consistency.

"We've had some really, really impressive outings from a lot of guys in the bullpen, and a lot of times they are followed up with a couple of those outings (that make) you scratch your head a little bit," Cash said, rather politely.

For a team that plays a lot of close games — nearly half decided by one or two runs — the Rays have to do better than a 63 percent conversion rate on saves and a bullpen ERA pushing 4.50.

Also, they've lost 25 games in which they have led. Not all were blown by the bullpen (though being outscored 168-100 in innings six through eight is telling), but if they had converted a third of those losses to wins, instead of being 44-42, the Rays would be 52-34 and leading the AL East.

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Their search for relief has included 18 pitchers thus far, and the shuffling will continue. There will be plenty of talk and hollow tweets about potential acquisitions over the next 3½ weeks leading to the trade deadline, and last week's trade for shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria can be taken as a sign the Rays are willing to be aggressive and take on salary to improve.

But Cash made it clear that the priority is now.

"We want to do everything we can do to get better," he said. "But our need to improve the bullpen first and foremost starts from within here. We need guys to improve and to be able to rely on those guys."

The workload starts with the starters. Chris Archer, Alex Cobb and rookie Jake Faria — who opens the as-big-as-a-mid-July-series-can-be, four-game set with Boston tonight — have been somewhat consistent, Jake Odorizzi uncharacteristically less so.

But for what good Snell took out of his outing in allowing four hits but also four walks, he knew that throwing 97 pitches over five innings is still part of the problem.

"It's definitely a step forward," he said. "But I've got to get into the sixth inning. I have to."

He's not the only one who has to do better.

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @ TBTimes_Rays.