Rays notes: Is infield chemistry different this season?
Sloppy defensive play has become a concerning trend for the Tampa Bay Rays, with errors produced in six consecutive games before Saturday, their longest streak since May 18-25, 2012. Finding a definitive reason for the mishaps is elusive.
Tampa Bay Rays first baseman James Loney (21) misses the ball as Boston Red Sox third baseman Will Middlebrooks (16) is safe at first base during the first inning Friday.
Kim Klement / USA TODAY Sports
By Andrew Astleford
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Sloppy defensive play has become a concerning trend for the Tampa Bay Rays, with errors produced in six consecutive games before Saturday, their longest streak since May 18-25, 2012. Finding a definitive reason for the mishaps is elusive.
Nine errors were committed in the span. Yunel Escobar produced three of Tampa Bay's four errors in losses to the Baltimore Orioles on Thursday at Camden Yards and Boston Red Sox on Friday at Tropicana Field. Escobar received a planned day off Saturday when the Rays played the Red Sox in the second game of a four-game series, with Ben Zobrist filling in for him at shortstop. Escobar said no lingering effects are present from the Oakland Athletics claiming him on revocable waivers last Sunday.
"That doesn't affect me anymore," Escobar said through a translator. "I just come to the field and try to play hard everyday. Things are not working out right now."
Rays manager Joe Maddon said he wasn't concerned about the waiver claim situation either.
"He's not really presented it that way to me at all," Maddon said. "Conversationally, everything has been the same. There has not been anything different."
Still, the defensive struggle is curious. Escobar, known for his flair in the field when he's confident, has been less reliable this season. He has 15 errors, more than double the seven he committed last year. In 2013, the Rays committed 59 errors, but they had 73 this season entering Saturday.
Much of attention for the fielding slump has been paid to the infield. All four infielders -- Escobar, Zobrist, third baseman Evan Longoria and first baseman James Loney -- were named AL Gold Glove Award finalists last year. But this year, with about a month left in the regular season, Longoria had already matched his 11 errors from 2013 by Saturday, Loney had matched his seven errors from 2013 and Zobrist had eight errors after committing just five in 2013.
"It obviously doesn't feel the same as last year," Zobrist said. "But yeah, I don't have an answer for you unless I look at the exact reasons why."
Mental fatigue could be part of the reason. Zobrist said fatigue is an issue for each player at some point throughout a season. But to him, it's no acceptable reason for the development.
"There's no doubt that everybody gets mentally fatigued, but that's not a reason for errors," he said. "I mean, you're going to make errors, physical errors, anyway on tough plays. But I think we've all been playing the game long enough that you know, whether it's a tough play or not, whether you should have made the play or not. Everybody knows individually how that feels.
"I know my first couple months, I didn't make plays I should have made. The last few months, I have. Personally, I don't feel like it has been that bad. I feel like, for me, it has been not as good of a defensive year. I feel like the plays, it hasn't come. There haven't been as many plays, it feels like. And I don't know, I need to look at the numbers. But it just feels like there haven't been as many opportunities that were just like, 'OK, we should make this play. We should make this play.'
"Maybe positionings might have something to do with it," Zobrist continued. "You just kind of have to look at everything involved. But as far as mental fatigue goes, there are certain plays we should make. You just need to make those plays. Bottom line, if you're a professional, you've got to make certain plays. And it just feels like we haven't made some of those plays that we normally should make."
Maddon, for his part, struggles to explain why in a predicament that goes beyond Escobar. Consider it another aspect of this puzzling Rays season.
"They're the same four guys," Maddon said. "That just happens in our game sometimes where maybe it doesn't play as well one year to the next, and it hasn't played as well this year. Why would there be no chemistry this year as compared to last year when there's great chemistry? It's just one of those unexplainable things."
Rays centerfielder Desmond Jennings was scratched less than 10 minutes before the Rays' series-opening loss to the Red Sox on Friday. Saturday, Maddon said Jennings had an MRI taken and a bruise was discovered on Jennings' knee.
Still, Maddon didn't seem too alarmed by the situation. He said Jennings, who has hit .244 with 10 home runs and 36 RBI this season, could have been available as early as late in Saturday's game. He said the injury occurred when a foul ball ricocheted off Jennings' knee in an unspecified recent at-bat and that the issue had been "an ongoing thing."
"Once you get definition to an injury, that kind of relaxes or releases your mind to the point where you're fine," Maddon said. "So now that he's got definition, it's going to start to feel a bit better."
Right-hander Alex Cobb, who starts against the Red Sox on Sunday, understands self-awareness on the mound is critical in the regular season's final month.
"I think understanding, physically, you're not going to be at your peak and trying to work with what you have is big," said Cobb, who's 9-6 with a 3.06 ERA and 122 strikeouts this season. "But at this point of the year, you should have a pretty good grasp on what you can do out there, and what you feel comfortable with mechanically."
Cobb was among the Rays' most consistent starters late last season. He went 3-0 with a 2.57 ERA and 35 strikeouts in five September starts. He also was 1-0 with a 1.54 ERA in two postseason appearances, and the Rays won in both his October starts against the Cleveland Indians in the AL wild-card game and against the Red Sox in the AL Division Series.
This year, Cobb has found comfort in August. He's 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA and 30 strikeouts in five starts during the month.
"Making minor tweaks here and there is big, game to game, and really just not eying the fact that the season is coming to an end," Cobb said.