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Bullpen struggles at root of Rays' problems

Rodney's confidence, consistency lacking a year after dominating @HalBodley

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- For the Tampa Bay Rays, this has nothing to do with envy. They glanced over at the Yankees' dugout before Friday's game, and to a player, believe they should be atop their division.

Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, Kevin Youkilis and Francisco Cervelli are on the shelf and didn't play at Tropicana Field for the holiday weekend series.

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Regardless, the patched-up Yankees are in first place in the American League East. And when the dust settled at Tropicana Field on Friday night, the Yanks skipped off the turf with a convincing 9-4 laugher.

What the Yankees did was show Tampa Bay that despite the myriad injuries to their multi-millionaire superstars, they're the class of the division so far. They're 11-5 since May 8.

The Rays, picked by many to dethrone the Yanks in the AL East, are looking up from fourth place, five games behind the leaders.

With a little bit of luck, no, make that late-inning relief pitching, the Yankees might be trying to catch the Rays. The Rays entered Friday's game suffering from an epidemic of blown late-inning saves, but that didn't even come into play this time.

Another inefficient start by Roberto Hernandez did them in.

Clearly, no matter how good the Rays might be, they just can't put all the parts together consistently.

Before first pitch, Rays skipper Joe Maddon talked about how much better his team is than it's shown and zeroed in on the bullpen. For one night, at least, bullpen woes were put on the back burner.

It was 8-0 after five innings, and the Rays were buried under a firestorm of New York hits. Yankee starter David Phelps didn't allow a baserunner until James Loney doubled to right field with one down in the Tampa Bay fifth.

The Rays are a team built on pitching, but that has been their most glaring weakness this season.

Matt Moore and Alex Cobb are a combined 12-2 with a 2.52 ERA, while the rest of the Rays' starters are 5-10 with a 5.17 ERA.

"Pitching won the game tonight for them and not for us," Maddon said after it was over. "You have to pitch better than the other team, and we just haven't done that with any kind of consistency -- and that's it."

Hernandez, who's had two consecutive poor starts, put it this way: "Didn't make my pitches. I have to keep on working and be ready for the next time."

In his past two starts, he's allowed 10 runs on 14 hits in just six innings.

They're going to give out Fernando Rodney figurines this weekend, and the timing couldn't be worse. Infallible in 2012, when he saved a record 48 games for Tampa Bay, Rodney has proven he's human this spring.

If you throw out the poor start by Hernandez on Friday, the bullpen -- Rodney specifically -- has to be Maddon's main concern.

Saving games has become psychological. He's playing mind games with himself.

Last season, getting the final out and launching that imaginary arrow to the heavens was automatic for Rodney.

Now, he wonders if he can do it again. Or will one errant pitch do him in?

Wednesday afternoon in Toronto, the Rays took a 3-2 lead into the ninth, when Jose Bautista sent a Rodney pitch screaming to the seats at Rogers Centre for a game-tying home run. The Rays lost 4-3 in 10 innings.

I've often compared relief pitching, the closer's role, to Russian Roulette. Occasionally, you get hit by the bullet.

And after that happens a few times, you wonder when it's going to come up again. It becomes psychological.

Compare it to a 4-foot putt. Make it five times in a row, and it's automatic. Miss one, and wonder if it's going to happen the next time -- and it often does.

"It's not a physical thing," says Maddon. "All our guys are well. It gets more psychological. Confidence, if that's the right word. Get nicked up, and you gotta grab your mojo back somehow. We're just not as sharp as we should be.

"You do that by continuing to go out there and believing that you can get it done. And eventually get on a nice roll. The only thing wrong with us is that our confidence has been hit a little bit in the bullpen. We have to get our guys back on the horse."

Putting what has become 2013's nightmare aside won't be easy.

Before Friday night's game, the Rays had let 28 leads slip away this season. That only happened 18 times through 46 games in 2012. The bullpen's 4.08 ERA is the worst in the AL.

If they'd just held on to half of those leads they coughed up, they'd be running away with the division.

Maddon makes no bones about his belief the Rays could -- and should -- be atop the AL East, even after Friday night's blowout.

"We are better," he said. "Break us down, and if we'd just done what we should be able to do, we are actually much better, and we'd be in a pretty nice spot right now. But we're not, and that's our own fault. So we have to go out and complete nine innings -- one game at a time, and eventually we'll get back to the top."

An hour after the Rays' latest loss was settling in, Maddon looked down at the chess board on his desk and said: "Overall, the over-arching point is we have to pitch better as a group and not just on this particular night."

But like in chess, one solid move followed by another and another wins.

So, for the Rays to get back in this race, as Maddon says, they have to do it one game at a time, but string a bunch of them together.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for

Tampa Bay Rays, Roberto Hernandez, Fernando Rodney