Lack of offensive life has Rays in rut
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — It was Star Wars promotional day at the Trop Sunday afternoon, with many fans dressing up in the costumes of their favorite characters and Darth Vader even throwing out the ceremonial first pitch.
Even the hapless Tampa Bay Rays offense got in the act, once again wielding sabers that were light indeed.
The result was a second consecutive 2-1 loss to the last-place team in the AL West, the lowly Seattle Mariners, with a challenging nine-game road trip looming.
How bad was this one?
The Rays managed only five hits — including four in eight innings against a Seattle pitcher, Blake Beavan, who entered the game with a 4-6 record and 6.06 ERA.
They averaged just 3.3 runs per game over the 10-game home stand that followed the All-Star break, finishing the potentially revitalizing segment at 4-6 and with a tenuous third-place record of 49-47 in the AL East.
The loss Sunday wasted one of rookie Matt Moore's best outings in the big leagues — a career-high eight innings, allowing no walks and striking out seven.
"We had every opportunity the past two days," said manager Joe Maddon. "Pitching was really good enough to permit us to win these two games. The offense has been challenged lately. We just have to do better there. We just have to figure out how to score more runs."
For the record, the defeat marked the 19th time in the past 24 games that Tampa Bay has been held to four runs or less. That included their two straight one-run efforts against the Mariners — and a batting average of .120 (3-for-25) with runners in scoring position in the three-game series.
The Rays had started the set on a promising, if offensively challenged, note on Friday night, beating Seattle 4-3 in 14 innings in a game in which neither team distinguished itself at the plate. On Saturday night, they failed to take advantage of several scoring chances after starter Alex Cobb was knocked out of the game in the second by a line drive to his shin, and a stellar bullpen effort kept them in striking distance.
Then came Sunday, with a chance to take the series, salvage a home-stand split and leave town on a high note for a three-game series Tuesday against the second-place Orioles (50-44). Instead, it was the Mariners — 16 games out of first with a record of 42-55 — that set the tone from the start.
Though Moore recovered admirably, he got off to a shaky start when leadoff hitter Casper Wells doubled inside the right field line in the first. Moore recovered well by fielding Ichiro Suzuki's bunt by the mound and throwing Wells out at third. Suzuki proceeded to steal second and score on Jesus Montero's double to left.
The Rays actually showed some offensive life in the bottom of the frame when Ben Zobrist doubled with two outs and then tied the score 1-1 when Matt Joyce ripped a single to right-center.
But Seattle struck right back with a run in the top of the second when Michael Saunders reached on a bunt single, stole second and scored when Brendan Ryan smashed a poorly executed change-up to left for a double.
Imagine that: three runs in 1.5 innings — and none for the rest of the dreary day.
"Frustrating" was the buzzword that floated around the Rays' clubhouse for a team that started the season 13-1 at home and since then has gone 15-24 here.
"It is, absolutely," said centerfielder B.J. Upton. "I think we're all frustrated at this point, but we're all professionals and we will find a way to make it happen."
As bad as their hitting has been, the Rays still find themselves in the thick of the playoff race due to the addition this season of a second Wild Card spot. Heading into Sunday night, they stood two games back of the Angels (51-44) in the crowded Wild Card standings. They trailed Baltimore, Oakland (50-44) and Chicago (50-45), and led Toronto (48-47), Boston (48-48) and Cleveland (47-47).
"In spite of all the maladies, we're right in the thick of things," Maddon said. "It's not like we're way being in anything. We're definitely in the playoff hunt, right in the middle of it."
There was a delay in speaking to Maddon following the contest, because he and executive vice president of baseball operations were going over the third roster move in the past two days.
Saturday, they had placed designated hitter Luke Scott on the 15-day disabled list — for the second time in two months — with a strained oblique sustained Friday night. They brought up Cesar Ramos from Durham and he responded with a gem in relief, pitching four scoreless innings with six strikeouts after Cobb was injured.
Following the 2-1 loss Saturday night, Ramos was optioned back to Durham and Brandon Gomes was recalled. And following Maddon's closed-door session after Sunday's game, it was announced that Gomes was being sent back down to Durham with a corresponding roster move to be announced Monday or Tuesday.
That move will undoubtedly be the return of outfielder Sam Fuld, who has missed the entire season due to wrist surgery. Fuld would join the team in time for what has become a critical road trip: three games in Baltimore, three, three in Anaheim next weekend against the AL West's second-place Angels, followed by three more against the surging, third-place Oakland A's (50-44).
The left-handed-hitting Fuld could see spot starts in the outfield, where he's made a name for himself for his sensational defense. He could also prove valuable against righthanded pitching. With Scott out again, and the timetable for Evan Longoria's return still up in the air, the Rays can use all the help they can get.
"What (his return) permits you to do in the outfield is give guys days off more readily against a tough right-handed pitcher," Maddon said. "He could give either Desmond (Jennings) or B.J. a day off completely. Against the righthanded pitcher, it thickens it up. He's a good pinch-hitter, you've seen that in the past. And he puts the ball in the gap also. He can still a bag and, of course, (there's) his great defense."
Fuld's impending return also comes at a time that lefty DH Hideki Matsui continues to unravel offensively. Matsui heard boos from the home crowd Saturday night after going 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and hit into a rally-killing doubleplay. Sunday, he came to the plate in the bottom of the ninth as a pinch-hitter with a golden opportunity to make fans forget his batting average had slipped below .150.
The Rays had unexpectedly come to life. With two outs against reliever Tom Wilhelmsen, Joyce slapped a double into the right field corner and Jeff Keppinger drew a walk. Maddon sent Matsui to the plate, lugging a 1-for-9 showing as a pinch hitter with the Rays, including no hits in his last seven attempts.
"That's what he's here for," Maddon said. "You have a man of his caliber and his esteem on the bench right there. I know he's been struggling but at any moment it could possibly pop and bite you in a good way. If he hits the ball in the gap right there, two guys score and all of a sudden he's feeling pretty good about himself and you have another really good option to go to."
But Matsui swung at the first offering and popped out feebly to short to end the game, further underscoring the sentiment that his Rays days are numbered.
The only good news, if there could be any, was Moore's effort. Though his record fell to 6-7, it was the first start of his career with no walks. And he became the first Rays pitcher 23 or younger to go eight innings since Scott Kazmir did so in 2006 at age 22.
"Just the feeling of running out there for the eighth inning and walking off the field after the eighth, it's a feeling that makes you feel a little bit accomplished," Moore said. "Especially when your goal is to work deep into the game and give the boys a shot that night."
But it wasn't to be on a day the force wasn't with the Rays' offense – again.