Rays welcome Marlins after brutal Mets sweep

ST. PETERSBURG – It was as quiet as a library in the Tampa Bay Rays’ clubhouse late Thursday afternoon – a stark contrast to the jubilation that marked their three-game road sweep last week of the Miami Marlins.

But so much for sweep dreams this time around.

Now it was the Rays who felt the sting of losing all three games courtesy of the resurgent New York Mets, who came to town fresh off losing three to the crosstown rivals Yankees.

And the news didn’t get any better following the 9-6 pummeling in front of a crowd of 21,947 at the Trop – a loss that followed setbacks of 11-2 on Tuesday and 9-1 on Wednesday for a combined 29-9 pounding by the New Yorkers.

The hush of the postgame atmosphere was interrupted only by word that designated hitter Luke Scott was being placed on the disabled list with a back strain. The injury occurred last Friday while Scott was taking batting practice in Miami. Other than pinch-hitting that night, he hasn’t seen action since. But because he’s going on the DL retroactive to Friday, he should be able to return to the lineup June 24.

“I’ve been having really bad back spasms since Saturday and just trying to get them to go away – doing everything the trainers have told me to do, but it’s been a tough situation,” he said. “It’s gotten much better. Today has been the best day so far. I’ve seen gradual improvement every day. … It’s a difficult situation for us as a group and a difficult situation for me personally, but (we’ve) just got to make the most of it.”

The Rays are expected to make a corresponding move Friday to fill the void left by Scott, who has been mired in a slump at .220 although his 35 RBI lead the team and he’s second in homers with nine. Meanwhile, manager Joe Maddon told the media in his postgame news conference that two players currently on the DL – star third baseman Evan Longoria (slight hamstring tear) and second baseman Jeff Keppinger (broken toe) – will be starting their rehab assignments this weekend in Durham with the Triple-A Bulls.

Keppinger will DH on Friday while Longoria works out, and on Saturday Longoria will DH while Keppinger plays in the field. “We’ll adjust Sunday because it’s a day game after a night game – we’ll figure out what we are going to do with both of those guys depending on how they are feeling on Sunday,” Maddon said.

Amid such a miserable start to their home stand, the glimmer of hope that they may soon regain the services of the two offensive sparkplugs was pretty much the only positive development.

That is, unless you count the fact that the Marlins now come to town.

Miami followed its three-game thrashing by the Rays with a 4-1 home win over the Boston Red Sox, but proceeded to drop the next two games by scores of 2-1 and 10-2 and a merciful day off on Thursday. Given Tampa Bay’s recent success last weekend (featuring a combined score of 22-7), the reeling Marlins couldn’t be stopping by for a visit at a better time in Part II of the Citrus Series.

Matt Moore (3-5, 4.59) is coming off a win last week against Miami and will face Carlos Zambrano (4-4, 3.55), who was shelled by the Rays last week, giving up five hits and seven runs in 2.1 innings of work. Saturday’s 7:15 p.m. matchup pits James Shields (7-4, 4.06) against Anibal Sanchez (3-5, 3.40) and Sunday’s 1:40 contest features Alex Cobb (2-3, 4.70) against the Marlins ace they missed last week: Josh Johnson (4-4, 4.27).

Frankly, anybody they face now will be a welcome relief from the Mets, who came to life with a vengeance after dropping three straight in the Bronx to fall to 32-29 and into fourth place in the NL East. But after beating up on the Rays, they’re 35-29 and in second place – 4.5 games behind the first-place Nationals.

Tampa Bay visits the surprising 38-23 Nats next week in Washington, raising the stakes this weekend against Miami. After standing at 10 games over .500 and in first place in the AL East only four days ago, the Rays have tumbled back to third in the division at 35-28, 2.5-games behind the first-place Yankees (37-25) and 1.5-games behind the second-place Orioles (36-26).

They’ll need a return to form of the pitching that has so often carried them this season. Against the Mets, it fell off the map – with Jeremy Hellickson the latest to stumble. He lasted only 3.2 innings, matching the shortest start of his career and allowed a career-high eight runs and nine hits. His ERA of 2.65 entering the game – fourth-best in the AL – slipped to 3.45.

Twice the Rays battled back to keep him in the game, erasing a 2-0 deficit to lead 3-2 and then coming back to tie the score 4-4 in the third. But after the 2011 AL Rookie of the Year got the first two outs in the fourth, New York’s Omar Quintanilla reached first safely by inches on an infield chopper and Kirk Nieuwenhuis followed with a homer to left to make it 6-4.

Hellickson further unraveled by hitting Jordany Valdespin, walking David Wright and yielding a double to Lucas Duda that made it 8-4.

“It’s very frustrating,” the right-hander said. “I felt good. They just fought off some good pitches and made me pay for my mistakes. It was a tough one. … The offense came out and did their job. We just need to do a better job of keeping them off the board.”

Rays pitchers, in fact, allowed nine runs or more in three straight games for the first since since June 5-7, 2005 at Cincinnati. And the 21 runs allowed by Cobb (6), David Price (7) and Hellickson (8) in the series represent the most runs Rays starters have allowed over three straight games since April 21-23, 2006.

The Mets’ starters, on the other hand, shackled the Rays for the most part – highlighted by the one-hitter thrown by knuckleballer R.A. Dickey Wednesday night. But the Rays were also befuddled in Tuesday’s opener by slow-throwing Chris Young, who picked up his first victory since last year.

The only starter they got to was Johan Santana on Thursday, but he still picked up the win in lasting five innings while yielding six hits, four walks and four runs. During their past 23 games, Mets starters are 13-4 with a 2.44 ERA. On the flip side, New York hitters entered the Rays series hitting .254 and averaging 4.3 runs per game.

Against the Rays, they seemed almost unstoppable, hitting .345 (40-for-116) and averaging 9.8 runs. Go figure.

“The whole series, the Mets have swung the ball extremely well, especially with runners in scoring position, and two outs,” Maddon said. “They deserved to win because they played very, very well.”

The Rays showed some signs of life in what turned out to be a dramatic bottom of the ninth. Trailing 9-4, they launched a one-out rally off reliever Miguel Batista when catcher Jose Lobaton walked, Elliot Johnson singled and Desmond Jennings singled home Lobaton to make it 9-5. Frank Francisco replaced Batista but the Rays scored again when Carlos Pena reached on a fielder’s choice as Jennings just beat the tag into second.

After a strikeout by B.J. Upton, cleanup hitter Hideki Matsui walked to load the bases and bring the potential go-ahead run to the plate in Ben Zobrist. The crowd was suddenly back into the game full-force. Zobrist, in spite of a hand injury and a lingering case of the flu, had already doubled twice in the game.

But on a 3-2 count, he appeared to check his swing but plate umpire Laz Diaz called him out. Zobrist turned and questioned the call, insisting he had held up and Maddon came onto the field, asking if Diaz had called the pitch a strike.

“I definitely thought (Zobrist) did not swing,” Maddon said. “My only question was that I can’t tell if it was a ball or a strike from where I was standing. But I could tell that he did not swing. I was asking Laz if it was a called strike, and if it was, I am fine with that. If he was calling it a swing, I totally disagree with that. He told me it was a called strike.”

Zobrist wasn’t so sure about that. “At first I thought he ws saying that I swung at it,” he said. “I thought he pointed at my bat and was basically saying that I swung at the pitch. When Joe came out, he was saying that he called it a strike. I don’t think that was his normal called strike-three call the way he called it. I think …  kind of in between would probably be the truth. Either way, Francisco threw a great pitch. That was probably the best pitch (a splitter) he could have thrown in that situation. I thought I held up, but it was a good pitch.”

With that, the Rays’ hopes for a comeback were dashed. And all that remained was the hush of disappointment and frustration hovering in their clubhouse.