Small margin of error: Rays waste elite pitching stretch with sub-par offense

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Before Sunday, the past 12 games were a clinic in quality pitching for the Tampa Bay Rays, the kind of display that’s necessary to make an outside chance to reach the playoffs more real.

For 12 consecutive games from Aug. 4-16, from right-hander Alex Cobb to right-hander Jake Odorizzi and everyone in between within the rotation and beyond, Rays pitching allowed three or fewer runs to give them a chance to keep their season afloat.

But the Rays failed to win enough in this stretch. An opportunity was wasted. A notable run from the mound ended Sunday with a 4-2 loss to the New York Yankees at Tropicana Field, when right-hander Jeremy Hellickson turned a no-hitter through 4 2/3 innings into a three-run, four-hit loss.

The Rays’ record through these 12 games: 7-5.

Their takeaway feeling, with their margin of error growing smaller by the day: Wanting more.

”You’d like to go a little bit more than that when you have that kind of run going on,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. ”That’s like mid-60s baseball right there. You’d like to take a little more advantage than 7-5, I think.”

Don’t fault Hellickson for Tampa Bay’s loss Sunday, not after he was solid through most of his five innings outside of New York’s three-run fifth. The result was further proof of the Rays’ struggling offense of late, which slogged through these past 12 games as their pitching soared.

Entering Sunday, the Rays’ 7-5 record was the worst in such a streak of its length since the 1997 Yankees, who went 6-6 from June 30-July 14 that year. Four of the Rays’ losses in their span were by scores of 3-2, each occurring in the ninth inning or later. Three were walk-off defeats.

The Rays made history in this window by reaching 61-61 with a victory over the Yankees on Friday, becoming just the fourth team to return to a .500 record after falling at least 18 games below. Their offensive shortcomings were masked because of the historic rise.

Tampa Bay Rays news

But with another loss Sunday, with another night passing without making up ground in the race for the American League’s second wild-card spot, concerns about the offense should be present again. They can’t be ignored.

”It’s tough,” Hellickson said of his start Sunday. ”Getting on the board early against (Hiroki Kuroda), with the stuff he had, 1-0 might have to stand. … I’ve got to make good pitches when I need to (and) start putting guys away with two strikes.”

Still, Hellickson and other Tampa Bay pitchers shouldn’t have to worry. Offense, for whatever reason, remains an enigma for the Rays. If they fail to make the playoffs, a look back at their shortcomings in the area will tell a large part of the tale, one of the largest what-ifs in a season filled with them.

Their pitching, meanwhile, has become a clear strength after shaky stretches to begin the year. After posting a 4.41 ERA throughout March and April, the Rays’ staff totaled a 3.93 ERA in May, a 3.30 ERA in June and a 2.71 ERA in July before Sunday.

The ascent is impressive. It provides hope for the future.

So it’s little surprise that the Rays’ pitching staff has reached a playoff-capable level now. Still, the offense remains a frustration, a sometimes-torturous puzzle. It has been inconsistent in recent weeks, capable of producing 7-0 and 10-1 routs over the Texas Rangers but going punchless in three losses by a 3-2 score since Aug. 10 against the Chicago Cubs, Rangers and Yankees.

”Absolutely fabulous,” Maddon said, when describing Tampa Bay’s pitching. ”There’s nothing to complain about. When you run like that, pitching-wise, you really think that you might have won close to all those games. We just have to figure out the offense, a way to score more runs on a consistent basis, because the pitching has been kind of lights out.”

The lights will go out on the Rays’ season soon, minus a playoff berth, if they don’t achieve more balance. Offensive woes are no new concern for them, since they have been shut out 14 times this season, tying them with the Seattle Mariners for the most occurrences in the AL.

Still, the sting goes deeper when it means glass-half-empty returns on a stretch of strong pitching of their own. It makes their margin of error shrink that much more.

”We’ve been pitching not even well — we’ve been pitching great,” Maddon said. ”It’s hard to pitch as well as we’ve been pitching.”

Somehow, their offense must follow.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.