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Rays ponder reasons for crash as they head into All-Star break (w/video)

Boston Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz hits an opposite field two-run home run against the Tampa Bay Rays during the first inning of a baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston Sunday, July 10, 2016. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson) BXF106
Published Jul. 11, 2016

BOSTON — TV guy Todd Kalas brought it up as a point of reference during Kevin Cash's media session after Sunday's 4-0 defeat to the Red Sox that made it 22 losses in 25 games for the Rays, but it really was a staggering thought.

On the morning of June 16, the Rays were 31-32, fourth in the AL East, 5½ games out of first, 3½ from the second wild card, with a real chance to make this a season to remember.

And here they are 25 days later, waking up 34-54, anchored at the bottom of the division and nearly the whole league, 17½ games out of first, 15½ from the second wild card and hoping now to avoid 100 losses, heading into the much-needed All-Star break trying to forget the mess they've made.

Talk about a bad month at work.

"It's kind of sickening to think that's how far we've kind of fallen here," Cash said.

The decline was rapid, obviously, and somewhat surprising.

The standard answer, and the convenient excuse, has been that the relentless run of injuries are to blame.

The Rays were stripped of several key players — with Kevin Kiermaier and Brad Boxberger at the top of the list — and the corresponding lack of depth made the absences more glaring. An outfield of Taylor Motter, Jaff Decker and Desmond Jennings probably wasn't going to cut it.

So, certainly, the injuries were part of it. And they were a .500 team for 2½ months. So they have some cause to maintain hope the second half will be better as they get Kiermaier, Steve Pearce and Boxberger back.

But there is another reason the Rays are in the midst of the worst run in the history of a franchise that has known plenty of bad:

They haven't played good ball.

Too many mistakes. Too many mental lapses. Too many plays that aren't made and opportunities that are wasted.

So that means either they have good players who aren't playing very well, or they have players who aren't very good whose flaws have been exposed.

Either way, that's a problem.

And it's not like the four-day break, whether they spend it fretting in front of a computer or frolicking in a pool, is going to suddenly make it all better.

"Hopefully, we can erase a little bit of what's taken place over the last 25 ball games," Cash said.

"You can never start fresh until opening day, but somehow we've got to kind of maybe trick ourselves into thinking we're going to start fresh here this second half. Just start playing some better baseball, more competitive baseball, doing the little things that it takes to win."

How is it they haven't been doing that all along?

Why aren't they masters of those "little things" as a way to make up for the talent and pedigree they routinely have to cede their higher-financed opponents?

Is there not enough time devoted to fundamentals? Not enough emphasis on hustle, on reacting, on playing the game the right way? Or at least the way it has been played, rather than trying to find new ways? Is there too much attention paid to what the computers tell them rather than what trained, or even untrained, eyes see?

Being careful not to point fingers and taking the blame himself, Cash pointed to two areas that have been most damaging — an overall decline in defense and the proclivity for games to get away in the middle innings, which is usually when they have to turn to the short-armed bullpen more because the starters have worked less.

For both, those deficiencies could be blamed as much on the front office as Cash and the coaches or the players.

Did they underestimate the impact of diluting the defense in the attempt to boost the offense? Did they overestimate the relievers they had in not getting help when Boxberger was hurt in the spring?

The extended skid will come with some cost. Cash's job, to repeat once again, is safe. And don't expect to see any kind of scapegoating a segment of the fan base is calling for — no sacrificing of a front-office exec, a coach, or Chris Archer's hair. But it is logical to assume that dropping out of contention increases the likelihood they'll shift into seller mode with the Aug. 1 trade deadline nearing.

Another reason to ponder how it all went so bad so fast.

"I don't think it's a lack of effort," team leader Evan Longoria said. "I don't think it's a lack of preparation. I don't think it's a lack of care.

"At times, it was sloppy play. And at times, we just didn't play good enough."

Or they just weren't good enough.

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

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