Rays hit road for West Coast swing with work to be done

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — There is work to do out West. There are problems to fix, focus to regain.  

The Tampa Bay Rays leave to start a 10-game swing against the Oakland Athletics, Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners after a week so far that’s short on anything good and long on questions.

The Rays’ record since Sunday: 1-4.

The Rays’ opportunity ahead: Still plenty.

“It’s definitely not what we want,” said Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, after Tampa Bay’s 2-0 loss to the Angels on Thursday. “But it’s what we have at this point. I think one positive is we still have a lead in the wild card, and we’re still within close striking distance of Boston with a month of baseball to play. What more could you ask for? We definitely haven’t been playing anywhere near what we’re capable of.”

That’s a fair assessment, and the latest loss followed the week’s theme. For seven innings, Angels left-hander Jason Vargas baffled Tampa Bay batters. Rays manager Joe Maddon said he “could just feel it” as early as the first inning that it was going to be Vargas’ day.

Vargas allowed two hits and three walks. The Rays stranded eight runners, including Wil Myers on third and Yunel Escobar on second when David DeJesus flew out to right field, ending a frustrating series for anyone in a home uniform.

Lately, here’s how rare that feeling has been here: The Rays lost a home series for the first time since June 13-16 against the Kansas City Royals, snapping a streak of 10 unbeaten series at the Trop. (Tampa Bay’s series record in that span: 9-0-1.)

Life for the Rays in this slide has included a grab bag of misfortune. There was an 11-inning loss to the New York Yankees on Sunday that could have been a victory and sealed a sweep. There was the drubbing in Kansas City on Monday in which right-hander Jeremy Hellickson was yanked after 2 2/3 innings. There was Hellickson’s optioning to Class A Charlotte on Tuesday to rest. There were the bullpen woes in a blown game against the Angels on Tuesday in which a 5-1 lead evaporated after the sixth inning. There were the struggles Thursday against Vargas.

Maddon has said his team spends 30 minutes enjoying a victory or worrying about a loss. That same brief memory must be embraced after this most recent five-game stumble.

As the Rays fly to California, thoughts of this blip must be lost by the time they cross the Rocky Mountains. Even better, the Mississippi River.

“‘Frustrating’ is a great word for today,” Maddon said. “The whole day reeked of frustration. We had the opportunity early, gave it up. He (Vargas) really settled in and pitched great. He had us chasing all day.”

The Rays have chased a lot recently, including themselves. There is no single area to blame for the skid. Sometimes, it’s hitting. Sometimes, it’s starting pitching. Sometimes, it’s the bullpen.

The Rays, at their best, look like this: A group with a solid, swarming offense, sure, but also one that leans on its rotation and sharp defense to keep the arrow pointed upward.

“I think all of us are one pitch away from really turning the corner,” said Wil Myers, who is hitless in his last 20 at-bats. “You go through those in baseball. It’s just one of those things. We’re just one pitch away, like I said, from really going again. … You can’t take the night before into the next day.”

Still, the Rays are in a good spot. If they right their ways on the road, they remain in strong shape. The Oakland series will be interesting, with the A’s trailing the Rays by a half-game in the wild-card chase. Meanwhile, the Red Sox led the American League East by three games before their series finale against the Baltimore Orioles on Thursday night.

With that clear, the Rays must avoid another West Coast letdown. The last time their plane was gassed for a cross-country trip, the returns were far from pretty: They lost five consecutive games against the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers from Aug. 6-11. That can’t happen again. Not with their margin for error small.

“It’s a really good time to go through what we’re going through, with the potential of having a really good September for all of us,” Longoria said. “Having one or two more good runs, we can really put ourselves where we want to be.”

There’s that chance. But work must be done.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford
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