ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Rays’ offensive struggles are a well-worn theme this season, but perhaps baseball’s evolution partly is to blame.
On Saturday, before the third game of the Rays’ four-game series against the Houston Astros at Tropicana Field, manager Joe Maddon spoke about the small margin of error for his team offensively this year. He said opponents have adopted some of the Rays’ methods of scouting hitters and placing defenders in strategic areas to take away what would have been hits in the past.
"I think we have actually overcome that in the past," Maddon said of offensive lulls. "I just think it’s (that) other teams have ascended. Other teams are getting more to the level. They’re playing more of our game. We’re getting beat with our own stick right now, kind of. I’ve got to give a lot of other groups credit."
June has become a difficult month for the Rays’ offense. On Friday, they were one out from being shut out for the 12th time this season and for the seventh occasion this month.
Overall, the Rays entered Saturday averaging 3.61 runs per game, the fewest in the American League and the second fewest in the majors, only better than the San Diego Padres’ average of three runs per game.
"Things have changed," Maddon said. "And so we’re making our adjustments now because the rest of the industry is starting to do certain things that, quite frankly, are a pain in the butt to us right now. There is parity, more parity based on that. There’s more parity based on better drug testing. So the whole league is getting more clumpy."
MOLINA PRAISES PRICE
Catcher Jose Molina caught David Price when the left-hander earned his 1,000th career strikeout in the loss to the Astros on Friday night.
The achievement occurred in the top of the second inning, when Price struck out designated hitter Chris Carter looking with a 94-mph fastball on a 0-2 count. Price finished with 12 strikeouts in eight innings, his fourth consecutive start with at least 10 strikeouts and seventh overall this season.
Consider Molina impressed.
"I really didn’t even know it," Molina said. "Like I said, I wasn’t even paying attention to that. The umpire was telling me, ‘Hey, throw the ball away.’ I told him, ‘Why?’ And then I looked at the board, and it was there. But I wasn’t paying attention to that, but it’s awesome.
"He’s an ace, man. He’s a good No. 1 guy for anybody. He just goes up there every fifth day and gives you 110 percent every single day. So I mean, to me, any guy who can do that is a No. 1. To me, he’s at the top of the list."
Maddon confirmed what the numbers show: Third baseman Evan Longoria, a three-time All-Star, has failed to discover his normal offensive comfort this season.
Longoria began play Saturday hitting .261 with nine home runs and 33 RBI this season. Compare those figures to the end of play on June 20 last year, when he hit .307 with 16 home runs and 46 RBI.
Longoria, despite the drop in production, seemed to find more rhythm of late. He produced an eight-game hitting streak from June 11-19 before going 0 for 4 in the Rays’ loss Friday. Entering play Saturday, he had hit .333 (38 for 114) in the Rays’ 29 victories and .215 (38 for 177) in their 46 losses.
"He just hasn’t hit his stride yet here offensively this year," Maddon said. "Why? I really don’t know. I mean, I think he’s well. He’s not injured. He’s fine. … I know his approach, whatever, the way he’s being pitched to. But for the most part, he just hasn’t hit his stride yet. And a lot of this stuff lies in the fact that our guys are good and they haven’t hit to that level yet."
— Before Saturday, facing a pitcher making his major-league debut usually meant bad news for the Rays. Dating back to July 22, 2009, they had lost eight of their last 10 games when facing a starting pitcher in his first major-league appearance. Seven of those 10 pitchers had earned quality starts, and six of them surrendered just one earned run or fewer. But Houston right-hander Jake Buchanan, promoted from Triple-A Oklahoma City on Saturday, allowed two runs in the first inning during Tampa Bay’s quick start.
— Maddon said Sean Rodriguez, who pinch-ran for Jose Molina in the bottom of the eighth Friday, apologized for a gaffe when trying to advance to second base from first. Houston catcher Jason Castro threw out Rodriguez after Rodriguez tried to advance on a pitch in the dirt by right-hander Jarred Cosart. There were no outs at the time.
"I think part of us getting better as an organization is having players become accountable to their actions," Maddon said. "Rodriguez last night came up to me and told me he screwed up on that play."
— The two-run home run by right fielder George Springer in the top of the third Friday off the D-ring catwalk in left field was measured at 442 feet. It’s the longest home run off Price since the Texas Rangers’ Nelson Cruz hit a 445-foot shot in Game 1 of the 2010 AL Division Series at Tropicana Field.