MLB Coverage: Tampa Bay Hits A Tailspin

The Tampa Bay Rays have hit a bump on the road. After a tough week, capped off by three straight losses in Oakland, the Rays are now closer to the playoff bubble than they are to first place in the AL East. TheSportsNotebook’s MLB coverage will take a brief look back at what’s gone wrong.

Let’s first review the games. Tampa went 1-6 over the past week…

Monday: at Kansas City (1-11): A makeup game from a May postponement on what was supposed to be an off-day. Jeremy Hellickson can’t make it out of the third inning.

Tuesday: vs. LAA (5-6): Tampa’s in position to get a win, with a 5-4 lead in the ninth, but Fernando Rodney blows the save and gives up two runs.

Wednesday: vs. LAA (4-1): The one high point in the week comes courtesy of starting pitcher Chris Archer, who throws seven sharp innings. And an assist from late trade acquisition David DeJesus, along with Ben Zobrist, who each have two hits at the top of the order.

Thursday: vs. LAA (0-2): An offense that’s been better than what Tampa fans have been used to in recent years makes Angel starter Jose Vargas look like Jered Weaver.

Friday: at Oakland (3-4): Another one on the bullpen, at least partially. Tied 3-3 in the eighth, David Price lets the leadoff man and is hung with the loss. That doesn’t excuse the pen giving up the winning double to Jed Lowrie.

Saturday: at Oakland (1-2): More offensive woes. Oakland’s Coco Crisp gets three hits in the leadoff spot to help generate just enough offense for the A’s.

Sunday: at Oakland (1-5): A.J. Griffin shuts down the bats to conclude the awful week.

Tampa Bay has gone from neck-and-neck with the Boston Red Sox in the AL East to 5 ½ games out. They’ve gone from a comfortable wild-card cushion and at least in position to host such a game, to just a 3 ½ game cushion and currently in a spot where a one-game battle would be on the road.

You can probably deduce that the offense is primarily to blame for this, as four of the games have Tampa scoring 0-1 runs. I haven’t run the advanced metrics on it, but I think winning is pretty tough in that window for any pitching staff.

It’s the big guns that aren’t producing for Joe Maddon’s team. Evan Longoria is 2-for-27 on the week, and both hits were singles. Will Myers, the rising star in the outfield has a .280 on-base percentage and .200 slugging percentage over the course of these games.

There have been players who hit well—DeJesus, James Loney and Zobrist. But none were really white-hot, certainly not enough to compensate for the lineup’s heavy hitters being shut down.

On the one hand, a Rays fan can very reasonably say that Longoria will start hitting again, and it’s probable that Myers will too. But before we assume that automatically solves everything, the offensive struggles go back at least to the All-Star break. Tampa Bay is last in the American League in runs scored in that timeframe. Longoria hasn’t been in the tank that entire time, so clearly there have been persistent problems with getting everybody hitting all at once.

Tampa Bay is used to having to win like that, but they aren’t used to staff ERAs that are only in the middle of the American League. Nor can we just say that’s about the early struggles of Price, something which is no longer applicable. While the rotation ace is pitching well, Tampa is actually slightly worse with their composite ERA since the All-Star break than before.

The best news Rays can get is for Matt Moore to return to the rotation from his elbow injury, and there are reports that indicate such a return could be as soon as tomorrow. Tampa Bay is still on the West Coast, starting a four-game set in Anaheim on Labor Day, and then going to Seattle for a weekend series.

Tampa’s West Coast trip takes them up to September 10, which is when they host Boston for a crucial three-game series. At least we’re assuming it will be crucial—I expect the Rays to start hitting, and to narrow that 5 ½ game margin in the next eight days. And when it comes to Tampa-Boston races, be assured no one in New England has forgotten 2011, when the Rays overcame a much larger margin.

But the pressure is on, because Tampa is now one more hiccup away from being out of the division race and having to fight for their lives to hold on to a wild-card.