State of the Rays: Arrival of reinforcements right on time

Reinforcements are coming. In some cases, they have already arrived. The Tampa Bay Rays need them to make an impact in the coming weeks to stop a slide that could threaten their postseason standing.

This was an end to August to forget. Entering Monday, the Rays lost seven of eight games. This slump included dropping three consecutive at Coliseum to their top competition in the American League wild-card chase, the Oakland Athletics.

There is no quick fix for the Rays’ position — some days, the problem is hitting; other times, it’s starting pitching or a shaky bullpen — but the new faces must help. Tampa Bay last won consecutive games when it beat the New York Yankees on Aug. 23-24 at Tropicana Field.

Not long ago, the Rays looked like a lock for at least the top wild-card spot. Their outlook looked as strong as the one enjoyed by the Boston Red Sox, with the American League East race figuring to go down to the final weeks.

That all can still happen. This is Sept. 2, early enough to rally. The Rays are 75-60 — 5.5 games behind the Red Sox and 2.5 behind the Athletics for the first wild-card position. Neither deficit is too large to overcome.

But Tampa Bay can use outfielder Delmon Young, left-hander Matt Moore, reliever Josh Lueke and catcher Chris Gimenez now with the rosters expanding to 40 players. Designated hitter Luke Scott also was activated from the 15-day disabled list. Possibly soon, right-handers Jake Odorizzi and Jeremy Hellickson, plus reliever Jeff Beliveau, could arrive as well.

Young and Moore are two, in particular, to watch. Young will be used as a designated hitter primarily against left-handed pitching. He is a career .283 hitter who has a .306 average against lefties, a solid number that could serve Tampa Bay well.

The Rays are high on Young’s maturity compared with what he showed in his first stint with the franchise in 2006 and ’07. He’ll have a chance to prove it. This is a second chance for him, and if he performs as well as the Rays hope, then both sides will benefit. But Young must do the work.

Meanwhile, Moore needs to show that this stay on the disabled list with left elbow soreness will not stunt his momentum. Before he was placed on the disabled list July 31, he had lived another upswing in an impressive season. He had won six consecutive starts and lasted at least six innings in each. That run included him throwing a complete game in a victory over the Red Sox on July 22 at Fenway Park.

How will Moore look when he returns, beginning with a start against the Los Angeles Angels on Tuesday? That remains anyone’s guess. He insists that he’s ready, but this return is a demarcation moment for him.

He was 14-3 with a 3.41 ERA in 21 starts before the injury. But just like left-hander David Price’s return from a left triceps strain in July, this comeback represents a new season of sorts for Moore.

Given Hellickson’s recent troubles, Tampa Bay needs stabilization in the rotation. A steady Moore would help. Clearly, the Rays would like to see Hellickson return from a brief stay at Class A Charlotte recharged, refreshed. But Moore’s performance could act as a buffer if Hellickson’s problems continue.

So reinforcements are coming. Some are here. Will they be enough to turn around the Rays’ current trend? Keep watching.

This is a team built on two principles: strong starting pitching and sound defense. The Rays need to regain balance to return to their former level.

What’s Hot

James Loney went 8 for 24 with one home run and five RBI in six games from Aug. 26-Sept. 1. He hit safely in five games during the stretch, only striking out three times in the process.

Loney has proven to be a solid contributor since the Rays signed him to a one-year, $2 million deal last December. He has hit .305 with 11 home runs and 60 RBI. He is the lone Tampa Bay batter with at least 100 at-bats to hit better than .300. He hit .247 for August, which was his lowest monthly total since hitting .282 in June.

What’s Not

Wil Myers and Evan Longoria have struggled to get much of anything going at the plate, going a combined 4 for 47 in games from Aug. 26-Sept. 1. Longoria hit 2 for 27 with nine strikeouts in seven games during the span, and Myers went 2 for 20 with eight strikeouts in six.

Myers, in particular, has cooled from an impressive start to his major-league career. He hit .209 in August, which was his lowest monthly total since debuting in June at Fenway Park. (He hit .296 in June and .352 in July.) Longoria went hitless in four consecutive games from Aug. 26-29 and finished the month hitting .245, a slight improvement from his .194 in July.

Quotes of the week

“To permit that many runs late, we’ve done that way too many times. We’ve got to stop doing that.”

— Rays manager Joe Maddon on blown leads, after the Rays lost to the Angels 6-5 on Tuesday at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay had a 5-1 lead after six innings but allowed three runs in the seventh and two in the ninth.

“He’s got such a strong mental game. This guy really understands routine and process. I saw a close-up on TV where he was almost talking himself, and I know he was telling himself the right things regarding how to slow down and how to focus …. That’s been the impressive part. I mean zero walks — come on!”

— Maddon on Chris Archer, after the right-hander went seven innings and allowed one run and five hits in a 4-1 victory over the Angels last Wednesday. With the victory, Archer won consecutive starts for the first time since beating the Toronto Blue Jays on July 21 and Yankees on July 27.

“You just have to stay positive. You keep thinking it will come to an end. I hope we can have one of those breakout games and then put together 15 games in a row where the offense is all together.”

— Longoria, to reporters, after the Rays’ 2-1 loss to the Athletics on Saturday at Coliseum. The loss was part of Tampa Bay’s 11-15 record in August.

Numbers game

37-13: The Rays’ record against teams with a losing record before opening a three-game series against the Angels last Tuesday at Tropicana Field. According to STATS, the mark against teams with a record worse than .500 was the best in the majors. The Angels won two of three games from last Tuesday to Thursday.

3: Blown saves for closer Fernando Rodney in August, the latest occurring in the loss to the Angels last Tuesday in which he walked two batters, allowed two runs (one earned) and one hit. Before August, he hadn’t blown a save since May 25 against the Yankees at Tropicana Field.

19: Pitchers who have started a game for the Rays since 2008. Right-hander Jamey Wright was the most recent when he threw 1 2/3 innings (allowed one run, three hits and struck out one) in a 5-1 loss to the Athletics on Sunday at Coliseum.

Tweet of the week

College football season kicked off last week. This was not lost in the Rays clubhouse, as shown by their “NCAA football” themed road trip to the West Coast. There were some interesting selections (Maddon in a Lafayette College jersey, reliever Joel Peralta in a Colorado one), but no one topped Price’s full-uniform tribute to Vanderbilt.

When Price learned about the theme, he contacted Vandy manager Tim Corbin, who worked with football coach James Franklin to ship the gear overnight to Price in time for a bullpen session last Wednesday.

Price pitched at Vandy from 2005 to 2007, so he was eager to show support for his Commodores. Price had a memorable response when asked to predict his football position, had he chosen a career between the hashes: “Between waterboy and long-snapper.”

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