State of the Rays: Rays need big series against Boston

This is it — a series we thought would go a long way in deciding the American League East when the Tampa Bay Rays were one of baseball’s hottest teams. This is it — Rays vs. Boston Red Sox — but this key set at Tropicana Field from Tuesday to Thursday has taken on a different meaning after Tampa Bay’s stumble through the West Coast.
 
At this point, survival is the goal for the Rays. A 3-7 slide against the Oakland Athletics, Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners has altered expectations for what is reasonable.
 
Once, Tampa Bay had visions of an AL East title and bypassing the win-or-go-home wild-card game. Now, the Rays must focus on holding off the Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians, New York Yankees and Kansas City Royals to earn a chance to play in October as a wild card at all.  
 
Bottom line: A 7 1/2-game deficit to Boston in the division looks like a steep climb with less than three weeks left in the regular season. Manager Joe Maddon’s team can’t afford another significant slump. Losing two or three games against the Red Sox would likely dent the Rays’ postseason chances further.
 
How fast things change. The Rays were an MLB-best 21-5 in July. Then they closed August with an 11-15 record, second-worst by wins in the AL, behind the Houston Astros’ 8-21 mark. So far, September has looked a lot like August.
 
Tampa Bay must answer. And quickly.
 
Like most swoons in baseball, however, there are no easy fixes. The West Coast trip included five games when the Rays scored two or fewer runs. Compare that trend to the Red Sox’s sizzling hitting — from last Wednesday to Saturday, they scored a combined 54 runs in victories over the Detroit Tigers and Yankees — and it’s obvious that Tampa Bay must find a way to produce while hand-cuffing confident Boston batters.
 
That’s easier said than done, of course. But for the most part, the Rays should like what they will present on the mound this series. Left-hander David Price (Tuesday) and right-hander Alex Cobb (Wednesday) have lasted at least six innings in five of six combined starts since Aug. 24.
 
Meanwhile, right-hander Jeremy Hellickson (Thursday) remains more of an unknown. But his four-hit, four-strikeout outing in 5 1/3 innings during a victory over the Angels last Wednesday at Angel Stadium was a positive step in regaining Maddon’s trust. He can do more work in that area by reverting to the form he showed in winning six of seven starts from June 2-July 5.
 
Still, there’s a question of whether the Rays will produce enough to take advantage of long, productive showings from their starters. Since the All-Star break, the Red Sox lead the majors in runs scored with 259; the Rays are tied for No. 28 in the category with 163, ahead of only the Miami Marlins’ 155. Since the All-Star break, the Red Sox rank third in the majors with 468 hits; the Rays are No. 24 in the category with 397.
 
It will be interesting to watch Tampa Bay batters work against right-handers Clay Buchholz (Tuesday) and Jake Peavy (Thursday). Buchholz last started June 8 in a victory over the Angels, and in his lone appearance against the Rays this season, he had a no-hitter going into the eighth inning April 14 at Fenway Park.
 
Still, there are questions: Will Buchholz be rusty in his return? How effective can he be?
 
Peavy, meanwhile, finished August with a 3-1 record and a 3.18 ERA in six appearances. He has allowed more than five hits in just two starts since being traded from the Chicago White Sox. In one appearance against the Rays this season, he allowed three runs and six hits in 6 2/3 innings in a victory April 26 at US Cellular Field.
 
There are questions with him too: Can Rays batters break through? Or will he be strong again?
 
So this is it. Rays vs. Red Sox. A rivalry renewed.
 
It’s a meaningful series but for different reasons than anticipated two weeks ago. The Rays still have much at stake.
 
But they must play with more urgency to extend their season beyond September.
 
What’s Hot

 
Ben Zobrist went 10 for 27 with one home run and a team-high four RBI in seven games from Sept. 2-8. He was the lone Rays player to produce double-figure hits in the past week, and he drew five walks and struck out only three times in the process.
 
Overall, Zobrist has hit .278 with 11 home runs and 67 RBI, which stands as the second-most for Tampa Bay behind Evan Longoria’s 74 RBI. He has hit safely in six of eight games in September, and he has gone consecutive games without a hit only twice since Aug. 18 (Aug. 18-19 and Aug. 31-Sept. 1).
 
What’s Not
 
Matt Joyce has struggled to be consistent at the plate, going 1 for 18 in five games from Sept. 2-8. The slump is part of a September slide that has seen him hit .045 with no RBI and three strikeouts in six games.
 
Overall, Joyce has hit .245 with 17 home runs and 44 RBI. He ended a hot August when he hit a season-high .350 with three home runs and 11 RBI. His current production is comparable to totals from last year, when he hit .241 with 17 home runs and 59 RBI in 124 games. (He has appeared in 125 games this season.)
 
Quotes of the week
 
“I did feel rested. I think my fastball had a little more life to it. Curveball might have been a little sharper.”
— Hellickson, to reporters, after he allowed no runs and four hits in 5 1/3 innings in the victory over the Angels last Wednesday. He returned after he was optioned to Class A Charlotte on Aug. 27 for rest, and the victory marked his first win since beating the Yankees on July 26.

“What I think really doesn’t matter. I can control what I can control. I feel like out of the 70-something pitches I threw, I was mindful of most of those and that’s the most I can control. … I’m sure if we weren’t in such a tight pennant race, two solo home runs wouldn’t have led to me coming out. But considering the situation, I have to understand we’re trying to do what’s best for the team.”
— Right-hander Chris Archer, to reporters, after he suffered his second consecutive loss in a 6-2 defeat to the Mariners on Saturday at Safeco Field. He allowed two earned runs and four hits in four innings. In an 11-2 loss to the Angels last Monday at Angel Stadium, he allowed five runs and nine hits in 3 2/3 innings.
 
“It’s the best 3-7 trip in the history of our organization.”
— Maddon, to reporters, after the Rays’ 4-1 victory over the Mariners on Sunday to close a 10-game West Coast swing. When considering a series against the Angels at Tropicana Field immediately before the road trip, Tampa Bay went 4-9 in a stretch against AL West teams from Aug. 27-Sept. 8.
 

Numbers game
 
9: Starts left-hander Matt Moore has gone without a loss. He last suffered a defeat June 14 against the Kansas City Royals at Tropicana Field, when he allowed five runs and seven hits in 5 1/3 innings. He has gone 7-0 in the current run, which was extended with a no-decision against the Mariners on Sunday (allowed one run and five hits in 6 1/3 innings).
 
1: Times the Rays have won consecutive games since Aug. 25. It occurred Sept. 3-4 against the Angels at Angel Stadium, when Tampa Bay outscored the hosts by a combined score of 10-2. In the same span, the Rays have owned losing streaks of three (twice) and five games.
 
14: Games left for the Rays against a division leader (Red Sox), a wild-card leader (Texas Rangers) and teams within three games of the second wild-card spot owned by Tampa Bay (Orioles and Yankees). After Sunday, the Rays have 11 games left at Tropicana Field and nine on the road.
 
Tweet of the week


Win or lose, the Rays would booze.
 
Kudos to Maddon for drawing from his past to hold a “Win or Weep” party in Long Beach, Calif., following Tampa Bay’s 7-1 victory over Los Angeles last Tuesday. The idea is clever, one that promises a good time no matter the outcome. (Who can argue with that?) Maddon told the Tampa Bay Times about “win or weep” dances held after high school football games when he grew up in Hazleton, Pa. Fortunately for the Rays, the party last week included positive vibes after a five-game losing streak became history.  
 
That news, alone, was worth a cold one for them.

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