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It's hard to see how season gets better for Rays (w/video)

Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Steven Souza Jr. drops the ball at the wall for an error on a hit by Boston Red Sox's Mookie Betts during the fifth inning of a baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston, Saturday, July 9, 2016. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson) BXF112
Published Jul. 10, 2016

BOSTON — After another misplaced pitch and another misplayed ball led to yet another defeat Saturday, the 4-1 loss their 21st in the past 24 games, the Rays talked of the salvation of the All-Star break that starts after today's matinee.

"I think that could serve us well," said Matt Moore, who pitched well but not well enough against the Red Sox. "Guys are going to get out of here, maybe some guys go home, just step away a little bit. I don't think we have too many guys physically in here who need a break, but I think just mentally.

"This is more than a skid. This is something where we're going to have to find a way in the second half to be better. There's no one way to do it. It's just, we've got to win ball games, however we do it."

There was similar sentiment throughout the clubhouse before and after they extended the worst stretch in 19 years of franchise history to fall to 34-53, 19 games under .500 for the first time since the Devil Rays days, when they ended the 2007 season 66-96. (And for those who thought they'd never see that again, this team is currently on pace to be worse, at 63-99.)

"I think that we're going to turn it around," veteran leader Evan Longoria said. "I think we're going to make a run at some point when we get healthy. … There's no doubt in my mind that we're a better team than we're showing right now. It's a matter of how quickly we can turn it around. … We have to do it soon."

Actually, it may already be too late.

But even then, what reasons are there to think the Rays can be better?

The starting pitching, much maligned through the first three months, has been somewhat improved of late, and it hasn't made much difference. The bullpen has been a seasonlong mess with, on a good day, four capable relievers and the rest of the guys who aren't ready to be here or just shouldn't be. The offense, despite the offseason additions, changes to the lineup and tweaks to the philosophy, remains at or near the bottom in runs. And the defense has been an underrated element in their demise, a taxing toll of plays that are messed up and aren't made, plus shifts that don't seem to be working as well anymore.

So how are they going to suddenly get good and get back into contention?

The biggest reason for hope is the return to health of several key players.

Gold and Platinum Glove-winning centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier is eyeing a return next weekend, which immediately improves the outfield defense, adds speed and energy to the lineup and makes the team more interesting to watch. Infielder/DH Steve Pearce shouldn't be far behind.

Closer Brad Boxberger is targeted for an end-of-the-month return, for real this time, they hope. And front-end starter Alex Cobb can see an early August finish line to his Tommy John rehab, providing a needed infusion of talent, experience and leadership.

But as these players are added, others are expected to be subtracted in trades. And, typically, the return is young prospects, not players who can help win now.

Once Pearce shows he is healthy, he is a strong candidate to be moved to a contender. It would be a surprise if the Rays didn't trade at least one of their starters and maybe two, with Moore the most likely and Jake Odorizzi and Chris Archer in play — plus Drew Smyly if he could get straightened out. First baseman Logan Morrison could go, and starter-turned-reliever Erasmo Ramirez. Baseball ops president Matt Silverman will be taking all calls.

Manager Kevin Cash acknowledged "it's going to take a lot" to get back in the race, but he remains confident they can. Of course he does. He has to.

But, again, how?

Some would say they need to try harder. Outfielder Steven Souza Jr. says they need to try easier, that "we really have to come together as a team and learn how to have fun again."

Some would say they need some breaks, Cash noting "it seems like any little mistake" comes back to haunt them. Moore said you can't pitch thinking that way, that it "sounds like a victim attitude."

The Rays can hope all they want of a dramatic turnaround, but as shocking as it seems, this may be what they are.

"I'm not sure of a good adjective. Surreal? It does not feel like the way the Rays have played since my time being here," Moore said. "It's different. Weird. Almost at a loss for words, because it does seem like a lot of different ways we are losing ball games."

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

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