Imbalance should be expected this time of year. It’s a trademark of the opening steps of a 162-game marathon, knowing that little about what’s learned in the season’s first two weeks likely will matter come late summer. Trained eyes know that caution, not snap judgment, is a wise approach to results in April.
Still, something is happening with the Tampa Bay Rays. Specifically, something is happening inside the 48-inch box near home plate that creates fits and fortune for all teams throughout a season. Consider the Rays in a frustrating phase.
Simply, Tampa Bay is one of the majors’ worst-hitting squads. The Rays didn’t need a near no-hitter by Boston Red Sox right-hander Clay Buchholz on Sunday at Fenway Park to remind them of this fact, of course. But their struggle to produce something, anything against opposing pitching is a study in how, at heart, this is a simple game.
Yes, despite bluster about advanced stats and other deep analysis, baseball’s equation is rather elementary: Hit the ball, and good things happen; don’t, and poor results come.
This is where Tampa Bay finds itself after a 3-2 loss to the Red Sox on Monday at Fenway Park. The Rays are 4-8, tied as of Monday afternoon for the American League’s worst record. Leading into a series against the Baltimore Orioles that begins Tuesday, they ranked 28th in batting average (.205), RBI produced (33) and home runs hit (five). In addition, they rank 29th in slugging percentage (.288).
Granted, these numbers were “accomplished” against two of the majors’ best pitching staffs. The Red Sox rank third in the league with a 2.69 ERA. Meanwhile, the Rangers are fourth with a 2.92 ERA.
For the Rays, there’s good news: This is an error that can be corrected. No long-term goals were ever won or lost after 12 games. Now isn’t the moment to suggest anything has been squandered.
Let manager Joe Maddon tell you why. His Twitter timeline in the past three days (@RaysJoeMaddon) has included a plea for patience. He’s right to request such a thing, given the season’s stage and his track record of success.
On Saturday, after a 2-1 loss to the Red Sox that included the Rays going 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position, he wrote:
After Sunday’s near-brush with infamy, he wrote:
No, it’s not. This is a path worn by many inside and outside Tropicana Field. History suggests there will be valleys to complement peaks that surface in Maddon’s eighth season with the Rays.
As of now, they must trust that Evan Longoria (he cracked his first home run Monday) will find his familiar stroke, that Yunel Escobar (4-for-41) will find comfort in his new colors and that Ben Zobrist (13-for-41 with a team-high 10 RBI) will continue to produce as the Rays’ greatest offensive threat to this point. They must trust that they will discover a hitting touch, however it comes.
The upcoming week will offer a reprieve of sorts, compared to elite pitching offered by Texas and Boston. Still, the next seven days will be no walk into the win column. The Orioles, ranked 15th in the majors with a 3.89 ERA entering Monday, have already beaten the Rays twice this season. The Oakland Athletics, ranked ninth with a 3.60 ERA, look promising. And the New York Yankees, ranked 16th with a 4.08 ERA, are slotted five spots ahead of the Rays (4.39) in the category.
So while it’s too early to gain a full read on the Rays’ hitting woes, it’s not too soon to say this is a worrisome blip. It’s wise to be patient. But the problem has the potential to become worse, not better, if left alone.
Sure, the unpredictable is part of April life. But the Rays must hope an early hitting skid doesn’t become a slump once habits turn to trends.
Their bats have been silent, but the Rays’ gloves are hot. If there’s a silver lining to Tampa Bay’s slow start, it has been stellar defensive play.
Longoria has been terrific in his return, making athletic plays at third base that show no signs of lingering effects from a left hamstring that required surgery in November.
Maddon has been excited about Escobar, a shortstop, since the spring and has called him a potential Gold Glove Award winner. Other contributors like first baseman James Loney have been decent as well.
The Rays were error-free through their first six games, and they have four after Monday. Solid defensive play will be key for Tampa Bay moving forward, especially with shaky pitching and hitting early. The Rays haven’t had much room for error with their struggles at the plate. But strong gloves will benefit them as they work to find comfort at the plate and on the mound.
This season hasn’t been a hit-fest for many on the Rays’ roster, but Escobar has had the most trouble. Among players with at least 25 at-bats, Escobar (four) is the only one with fewer than five hits. He has struck out a team-high 11 times, tying him with Longoria in the category, and he and Longoria are the only players with double-figure strikeout totals.
It’s early, of course, and Escobar has shown a recent history of sustained hitting. He has produced at least 127 hits and 35 RBI in each of the last three seasons, during time split between the Atlanta Braves and Toronto Blue Jays. He has never earned fewer than 104 hits in a single season during his six-year career in the majors. Still, he has a long way to go to match those totals this year.
Quotes of the week
“That kind of call cannot occur. I don’t even want to say under those circumstances – the last inning, the last out of the game. I’m not even going to go there. That call can’t be made in a Major League Baseball game.”
– Joe Maddon, after home-plate umpire Marty Foster’s controversial game-ending strike call on Zobrist during a 5-4 loss to Texas last Monday. Replays showed closer Joe Nathan’s curveball was low and outside. Foster later admitted his mistake.
“I’m just going to continue to get my work in. … But like I said before, six innings over here just isn’t enough.
– Left-hander David Price, after giving up one run and four hits in six innings in a 2-1 loss in 10 innings to the Red Sox on Saturday. The defending American League Cy Young Award winner has a 5.82 ERA in three starts, none lasting longer than six innings.
“At least somebody got a hit.”
– Outfielder Sam Fuld, after Johnson used one of his bats to break up a no-hit bid by Buchholz with a single to right field in the eighth inning during a 5-0 loss Sunday.
39: Degrees at the start of the Rays’ series finale against the Rangers last Wednesday, an eventual 2-0 victory for Tampa Bay. It was the coldest day game on record at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
2008: The last time the Rays started the season 3-4 or worse. That year, they went on to finish 97-65 and win the American League pennant.
37: At-bats without a home run for Longoria, who has hit at least 22 during seasons in which he has appeared in 100 games or more. He smashed a 407-foot shot to left field against Red Sox right-hander Ryan Dempster in the top of the fourth inning Monday.