Rays have chance to make up ground on road

BY foxsports • July 24, 2012

It doesn’t get any easier from here, folks.

In fact, the Rays’ nine-game road trip that begins Tuesday in Baltimore before heading to points west in Anaheim and Oakland looks downright daunting.

Following a disappointing performance in their recent 10-game homestand — a 4-6 effort marked by horrendous hitting and barely three runs scored per contest — the Rays now venture into dangerous territory against teams they trail in the Wild Card race.

Oddly, that may be the best thing they have going: head-to-head showdowns with a chance to make up the valuable ground they squandered at Tropicana Field.

The Rays have a recent history of playing quality teams well in high-stakes situations, and maybe that will jolt their listless offense — a unit that hit below the Mendoza Line (.182) during the past 10 games with runners in scoring position and boasts a dismal .227 batting average overall since June 25.

“The better teams do bring out the best in us, so let’s see what happens,” manager Joe Maddon said Sunday, following his team’s second straight 2-1 loss to the Seattle Mariners.

Something has to give, or the Rays could return home from their first road swing of the season’s second half below .500 and well off the Wild Card pace. As it is, the record that stood 10 games over .500 on June 11 has dwindled to two games at 49-47 — precariously perched in third place in the crowded AL East.

“It’s no time to give up, it’s no time to start crying,” Maddon added. “It’s a difficult moment because we really did not take advantage of some pretty good opportunities over the last couple of days. We have to figure out a way to get beyond that. Plus, we’re going against teams now that are highly in contention, so we have to be on top of our game.”

Perhaps the expected return Tuesday of outfielder Sam Fuld from the disabled list, following wrist surgery early in the spring, will add a much-needed spark.

When Fuld began with the Rays a year ago, he came out of the gate in a full sprint — endearing himself to fans with dazzling defense that made them forget about Boston-bound Carl Crawford and sizzling offense that produced an early batting average of .390.

Maddon has a habit of throwing players who join — or re-join — the team right into the fray, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see the left-handed-hitting Fuld see some type of action Tuesday in the 7:05 p.m. game against the second-place Orioles (51-45). Yet chances are it would be off the bench as a pinch-hitter or defensive replacement because Rays are going up against a tough left-hander in Wei-Yin Chen (8-5, 3.80 ERA).

Tampa Bay, meanwhile, could really use a turn-around performance by struggling righthander Jeremy Hellickson (4-5, 3.55), who hasn’t won a decision in two months.

On Wednesday night, the odds would seem to shift markedly back into the Rays’ favor, as David Price — the AL’s winningest pitcher with a mark of 13-4 and ERA of 2.64 — faces right-hander Miguel Gonzalez (2-1, 2.61).

The series wraps up Thursday with a 12:45 p.m. start, as James Shields (8-6, 4.39) takes the mound against righty Chris Tillman (2-1, 1.15). The encouraging news for the team is that Shields pitched seven standout innings in his last start, keeping his team close in an eventual 4-3 victory in 14 innings against the Mariners.

The Orioles show no signs of folding in the heat of the race. They had won five straight games before falling to Cleveland 3-1 on Monday. And they’ve also bulked up since the last time the two teams met in early June at the Trop, when the Rays took two of three.

Star right fielder Nick Markakis is back from his own wrist injury, and the lineup now features free-agent slugger Jim Thome, acquired several weeks ago from the Phillies. Thome homered against the Rays in Philly last month and just blasted his 611th career home run — seventh all time — to help defeat Cleveland 3-1 Saturday.

Baltimore already boasts a dangerous bat in center field Adam Jones, who leads the team with 22 home runs and 50 RBI. The Birds also match Tampa Bay in the All-Star closing department, with Jim Johnson back in the AL saves lead with 30, followed by the Rays’ Fernando Rodney’s 27 (a number also matched by Cleveland’s Chris Perez).

The Orioles won two of three from Tampa Bay at home in May, so the series stands at 3-3 this season. Rays players don’t need to be reminded how important a good showing in Baltimore is at this stage. The one player the team can’t wait to get back, third baseman and offensive leader Evan Longoria, is accompanying the team on this trip, allowing him to participate in more baseball-related activities in the field and batting cage.

Still, the Rays need to get some traction before he returns — whenever that is — or they risk falling precariously behind in the pursuit of the second Wild Card berth.

“Everybody knows Longo is one of the biggest bats and he’s been out for a while,” said right fielder Matt Joyce, who only recently returned from the DL himself. “That’s been hammered over and over. It’s just a matter of the guys we have in there now have to make adjustments. That’s the answer — and finding some way to score runs.”

It’s especially imperative, given the competition they’re about to face in the next nine days.

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