ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays were the team without any hard knocks on Tuesday.
Though they got another sterling start, six innings of one-run ball from rookie Austin Pruitt, they couldn't get anything but two measly singles off Red Sox ace Chris Sale and closer Craig Kimbrel, losing the series opener against the division leaders 2-0.
Of greater concern to the Rays than dropping to 58-56 and 6½ games back in the American League East race (and staying even with the Royals in the second wild-card race) has to be the ongoing absence of their offense, though at least they had the proviso Tuesday of facing Boston's dynamic duo.
But since returning from Houston, the Rays have been shut out in three of four games and scored only two runs in the other, Sunday's walkoff win over the Brewers. They are also 0-for-their-past-24 with runners in scoring position.
"Yeah, it's probably a little frustrating," rightfielder Steven Souza Jr. said. "We put up two runs in the last four games, it's definitely not what we've been doing all year. Look around and there's some good pitchers. Sale's been doing it all year to everyone. But, yes, it's frustrating."
More so, because their starting pitching has been so good. Pruitt was the fourth straight Rays starter to work six innings and allow just one run, and they have three Ls and a no-decision to show for it.
"We've gone through a dry spell," Souza said. "The pitching's been great. So all we have to do is start getting the bats alive again. There's so much baseball left to be played. This is such a tough stretch, and we really haven't really had that tough of a stretch up until this point.
"If we thought it was going to be easy, it wasn't. And if we thought there weren't going to be bumps in the road, then we were mistaken. But we just have to come together collectively and start to get it going a little bit."
Pruitt again proved the Rays' trust wise in holding the Red Sox to one run over six innings, scattering seven hits and one costly walk.
Putting Dustin Pedroia on to open the fourth, in front of a bi-partisan crowd of 22,328 at the Trop, led to trouble. Though he would pitch his way out of other trouble, Pruitt couldn't turn a double play on a comebacker — he appeared to slip a little fielding the ball, though he claimed he didn't — that cost him the run.
"I threw the ball well. I got out of some tough jams," Pruitt said. "I was upset with myself about the comebacker."
The Sox added on in the ninth against rookie reliever Ryne Stanek, as manager Kevin Cash stuck to script to not use Tommy Hunter, who had been warming earlier, with the team behind.
Not only did the Rays have the usually arduous task of facing Sale, and at the Trop, where he typically pitches well, but of doing so when he was even more ornery, coming off a rough outing against the Indians when he was knocked out after five innings, having allowed seven runs.
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Unsurprisingly, their night didn't start well with 10 up and 10 down — five on strikeouts, nothing hit hard. They got one man on when rookie third baseman Rafael Devers made a throwing error in the fourth, and they canceled the no-hitter alerts when Wilson Ramos singled with one out in the fifth.
Still, it seemed like they might need help from a higher authority, or Tim Tebow, who is coming to town if you haven't heard, to break through. When Logan Morrison walked to open the seventh against Sale, Souza — who was 1-for-17 with 12 Ks against him — tried to get creative and bunt for a hit but pushed it too hard, and Morrison was thrown out. They went quickly after that, as Sale struck out 13 and Kimbrel three more in the ninth.
"It's not an easy thing to do, hit at this level," Cash said, "and that is so added on when you're facing probably the game's best and then you face the other game's best when he comes in in the ninth."
If they are serious about their division title aspirations, they have to get that turned around tonight, against Boston's Rick Porcello and his 4.70 ERA.
"We'll get it going," Cash said. "We're going to get the offense going here sooner or later."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.