MIAMI — Things aren’t that bad for the Rays.
A little power outage at and on the field over a lost weekend, a lot of bad puns and easy headlines, but they still woke up Monday with a 24-15 record that was third best in the American League and leading the East by half a game.
It sure beats some alternatives. Such as last year, when at the same point the Rays were 17-22 and still digging out from their horrendous start on the way to 90 wins. Or being the Marlins, who go into the two-game series starting Tuesday with 10 wins and on a pace for 120 losses.
But the Rays’ strong April fueled expectations, and their thus-far tepid 5-6 May, starting with the doubleheader sweep in Kansas City, has raised worries, along with injuries to their top two catchers (Mike Zunino, Michael Perez) and winningest starter (Tyler Glasnow), which are testing their depth.
Here are five things we think we know they should be concerned about:
1. For starters …
As relieved as the Rays were that Glasnow’s forearm tightness was said to be only a mild strain and not a Tommy John repair-needing tear, the reality is that they will still be without him into late June or July, longer with setbacks. Losing a top starter hurts any team, but especially the Rays since they only use three as it is.
They have some time, with three days off in eight, to decide how best to replace him. None of the obvious options are overly comforting. First, do they actually name a third starter, or just go from using two opener/bulk guys in the “rotation” to three? The difference seems slight, but having to mix and match more three days in five is too much. Too taxing on the relievers, and in managing them.
They tried this a bit last year, and found it challenging. And it’s tougher now, as they soon open a stretch of 34 games in 34 days and 47 in 48 (with one doubleheader), eliminating chances for the bullpen to catch up on rest.
With it unlikely help, such as free-agent Dallas Keuchel or ex-Ray James Shields (hmmm … ), is coming from the outside, their choices seem limited. Yonny Chirinos (5-1, 3.61 overall; 2-1, 2.49 as a starter), Jalen Beeks (2-0, 2.48 in relief/bulk work), Ryan Yarbrough (2-1, 8.10 in majors; 1-0, 1.80 in minors currently) are candidates. Jake Faria (2-1, 7.43 in minors) is apparently not.
None inspires much confidence in becoming equal partners with Blake Snell and Charlie Morton, as Glasnow was. Chirinos seems the likely choice, though Beeks is an intriguing option. They could juggle them based on matchups. Promoting either takes away from their bulk-guy depth, which has residual impact.
2. Quiet time
After a spunky start offensively, the Rays have cooled off, notably during the three weeks outfielder Austin Meadows was out. The numbers can be parsed different ways, and totals skewed by a couple blowouts, but here’s one telling way to look at it:
In their first 24 games, the Rays scored three or fewer runs seven times and two or less only three times. In their last 15, they’ve scoring three or fewer runs nine times, and two or less seven. Related, for as good as their pitching has been, they are 5-11 when scoring three or less, 19-4 with more.
The collective dropoff can be individualized, as several Rays chilled after hot starts, but only some rebounded.
Kevin Kiermaier is 1-for-his-last-24 and 10-for-66 with two RBIs over 19 games.
Brandon Lowe is hitless in his last 12 at-bats, with 10 strikeouts (including a team-record tying eight straight).
Daniel Robertson hasn’t had his average above .200 in over a month.
Willy Adames has been alternatively ice cold and red hot, currently at .237.
Also of note, they are hitting .237 with runners in scoring position (24th in the majors and .138 (25th) with the bases loaded.
“We need to have some guys start swinging the bats a little better,’’ Kiermaier said. “Myself being at the top of that. We haven’t been able to generate offense as of late besides (Saturday). We have to get back to clicking on all cylinders and hopefully we can do that in Miami come Tuesday.”
3. The defense rests
This is more of an eye-test thing than necessarily quantifiable, but it’s Cash’s eyes, so that counts for something. The defense has not been as top-shelf crisp as late, and it shows up in different ways. Not in just obvious errors (their .990 fielding percentage is second best), but in misplays and missed plays, which allow teams to take extra bases or to get extra outs in an inning.
Go around the infield, and where do you feel the Rays have outstanding, or even above average, defense right now. As much as they rely on run prevention, these kind of mistakes can’t be made as frequently.
4. The Red Sox are coming. The Yankees are here.
For all the good the Rays did in getting off to one of the best starts in the majors, they don’t have much margin to show for it, starting Monday three games ahead of Boston and a half game up on New York.
While the Rays are sputtering, both those teams are trending the right direction.
After starting 3-9 — “And it could have been worse,’’ David Price said — and 6-13, the Red Sox have won 16 of 22 to get back over .500 and into the race. They still have issues, such as a 4.76 ERA for their once-vaunted rotation, but, lest anyone forget, also the resources to address any needs. The Yankees, as they showed in taking two of three from the Rays, have done more than an admirable job of hanging in with a slew of front-line players injured, getting on their own 16-6 roll. What was a 5 ½ game Rays’ lead April 18 is just about gone, as the Rays went 10-10 over the same stretch, and head to New York this weekend.
Also of note, the Rays are 3-5 against the Sox and Yanks, 21-10 vs. the others.
5. Close is not close enough.
At some point this becomes more than a circumstantial and curious stat and something of a pattern. And a subject for riling questions about whether they don’t have what it takes in clutch situations. The Rays are 1-7 in one-run games, which is worst in the majors. They are 6-10 in games decided by two or fewer. In their 15 losses they have allowed the go-ahead run in the eighth inning or later six times. They’ve only won once when trailing after six innings, and none after seven. They are 0-4 in extra innings, without a run in 10 frames.
Contact Marc Topkin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.