State of the Rays: Struggles offer moment of pause

Over the past week, as the hot Tampa Bay Rays suddenly cooled, there was reason for new caution. Five consecutive losses to the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers included a little of everything: spotty starters, a struggling bullpen and an offense that failed to produce against elite pitching.

When revisiting the trip, missed chances are easy to find. By all accounts, Tampa Bay should have won two games. A 9-8 loss to the Diamondbacks last Wednesday, when the bullpen allowed two runs in the eighth inning, was an opportunity squandered.

So was a 7-6 loss to the Dodgers last Friday, the season’s most painful defeat, when the bullpen allowed six runs after the seventh on a night when left-hander David Price pitched well enough to earn his seventh victory.

Despite the hiccups, Rays manager Joe Maddon, forever the optimist, remains confident. After the Friday loss, he tweeted, “We will throw this one in the wastebasket as soon as possible and come back ready to play tomorrow.” After the Sunday loss, he tweeted, “Dodgers pitching very impressive last two nights — much like ours will be when we’re going right again.”

Pitching is a large reason for the Rays’ current trials. Aside from Price, who threw seven innings and allowed one unearned run, there were few bright spots on the mound during the West Coast swing.

Right-hander Jeremy Hellickson was beaten twice, allowing nine runs and 12 hits in 7 2/3 combined innings. Setup man Joel Peralta and closer Fernando Rodney both suffered losses. Young right-hander Chris Archer left his start last Wednesday against the Diamondbacks after 1 2/3 innings because of forearm tightness.

Right-hander Roberto Hernandez lasted four innings against the Dodgers last Saturday, seeing his ERA rise to a rotation-high 4.95.

Despite the hardship, there were silver linings that emerged recently, reasons to study how the Rays respond in the coming weeks.

They anticipate that right-hander Alex Cobb, out since sustaining a mild concussion on June 15, will return to the rotation Thursday against the Seattle Mariners at Tropicana Field. Left-hander Matt Moore, on the disabled list since July 31 (retroactive to July 29) with left elbow soreness, could return during the upcoming homestand as well.

Both moments will be significant for the Rays, as they prepare for the season’s closing months in what should be a tight American League East race. The past week was a collection of misfortune: Archer’s abbreviated start, bullpen blunders and unfavorable pitching matchups in Los Angeles that saw them face both Zack Greinke and Clayton Kershaw.

It remains to be seen how Tampa Bay will handle the return of Cobb and Moore. Hernandez could be moved into a bullpen role, given how he has been the clear weak link within the rotation for much of the season. The Rays like Archer’s potential, and before he left Chase Field because of health concerns, he had thrown at least seven innings (two complete games) in his previous four starts.

Baseball includes leveling moments, and the Rays lived one on their most recent road trip. At this point, there is little reason for alarm, though a correction must occur for them to keep their postseason visions.

Their elite play in the weeks before the All-Star break, which extended to an 8-2 road trip to start the second half, represented a peak that lifted them among the Boston Red Sox at the top of the division.

Now, they are in the middle of a valley scenario. Good teams find ways to fight through, evolve and escape stronger on the other side.

There is still plenty ahead of them. They trail the Red Sox by three games for the AL East lead. Cobb and Moore should stabilize the rotation. Reliever Jesse Crain, gained in a trade with the Chicago White Sox on July 29, will provide bullpen depth when he returns from the disabled list.

There are moments in each season that humble, force pause. Five consecutive losses on the West Coast was such a time for Tampa Bay.

There is more to be learned about this team. Starting with the returns of Cobb and Moore, plenty will be revealed.

All part of the journey.

What’s Hot

Yunel Escobar went 6 for 21 with a team-high five RBI in five games from Aug. 6-11. He has hit .256 with eight home runs and 47 RBI this season after starting .169 with two home runs and seven RBI in April.

Escobar hit safely in 12 of 14 games from July 26-Aug. 11. His most productive game in the stretch came on Friday, when he went 2 for 5 with three RBI in a loss to the Dodgers. He has hit .290 with five RBI in August.

What’s Not

Hellickson has reverted to his early season ways. He has lost three consecutive starts, two against the Diamondbacks, and he has failed to reach the sixth inning in each. He allowed 13 earned runs and 19 hits in the span, which includes the Rays being outscored 21-3 in those games.

After starting 1-2 with a 5.61 ERA through May, Hellickson had won eight of nine decisions before the recent slide. He only lasted three innings (51 pitches) Sunday in a loss to the Dodgers, which was his shortest appearance in 24 starts this season.

Quotes of the week

“I am glad they are cautious with me, thinking about the future, and hopefully it just dissolves, and my next start I am out there at normal game speed.”

— Archer, to reporters, after he was removed due to right forearm tightness following 1 2/3 innings in the Rays’ 9-8 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks on Wednesday at Chase Field. He is scheduled to make his next start Tuesday against the Mariners at Tropicana Field.

“Loney saw me, but he threw the ball to Yuni, which was the best part of the play, because it was indirect. If he would have thrown it to me, Uribe would have seen him throw the ball to me. And then Yuni flipped it to me, and I just kind of waited there, and he barely took his foot off the base, and I tagged him. Thankfully, (umpire) Angel Hernandez was right on the play as well. He kind of stuck with the ball and made the call.”

— Third baseman Evan Longoria, to reporters, after tagging out the Dodgers’ Juan Uribe with the rare hidden-ball trick in the fourth inning of the Rays’ 5-0 loss to the Dodgers on Saturday at Dodger Stadium.

“I’m not pitching well. The last few games I’ve been in spots where I need to make a big pitch with two out to get me deeper into the game, and every time I didn’t get the job done.”

— Hellickson, to reporters, after the Rays’ 8-2 loss to the Dodgers on Sunday at Dodger Stadium. He has lost three consecutive starts since July 31, never lasting longer than 4 2/3 innings in each, after winning six consecutive decisions from June 19-July 26.

Numbers game

5: Consecutive losses for the Rays, their longest skid of the season. They hadn’t lost more than two straight since dropping three from June 16-18 against the Kansas City Royals and Red Sox.

1: Hit produced by the Rays’ pitching staff in the latest West Coast road swing. For the season, Hellickson leads Rays pitchers by hitting 1 for 3 with one strikeout.

6: Length of the Rays’ upcoming homestand (against the Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays), their second-longest left this season. They have an eight-game homestand from Sept. 16-23 against the Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles.

Tweet of the week


Two scary moments connect Cobb and Blue Jays left-hander J.A. Happ. Both were struck by line drives on the mound at Tropicana Field earlier this season, and both faced extended rehabs in their work back.

Happ pitched four innings last Wednesday in a no-decision against the Mariners at Safeco Field, his first action since he was struck near the left ear by a liner from the Rays’ Desmond Jennings on May 7.

Cobb is expected to return Thursday against the Mariners at Tropicana Field, which would be his first action since a liner from the Royals’ Eric Hosmer struck him on the right ear June 15.

Two scary moments, two recoveries. Here’s hoping we never see anything similar again.

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