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Sputtering Rays seeking to pop clutch in hurry

Club can't afford lingering RISP struggles with daunting schedule down stretch @HalBodley

ST. PETERSBURG -- Put runners in scoring position and the Tampa Bay Rays come up empty. In blunt terms, they choke.

The Rays, who led the rugged American League East by percentage points on Aug. 25, have been in an out-of-control free fall. They're a Major League-worst 4-12 since then, trying desperately to hold onto the AL's second Wild Card berth.

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That's the precarious position they face after losing to the Red Sox, 2-0, on Tuesday night and once again not being able to capitalize with runners in scoring position.

This time, the Rays' inability to cross home plate squandered a brilliant pitching effort by lefty David Price.

Boston came to St. Petersburg for what was supposed to be a critical three-game series, a battle for the East's top spot. Now, for the Rays it's more like a matter of survival -- at least as far as playing in the postseason as a Wild Card is concerned.

Here come the Orioles, Indians and Yankees. The Orioles and Indians are each 1 1/2 games behind the Rays, and the Yankees are two back.

With Tuesday's game out of the way, the Rays have 19 games left, and 13 of those are against teams contending for a playoff spot. The road to October will be perilous.

Desmond Jennings, who misplayed Mike Napoli's booming fly ball to the center-field wall in the fifth inning, summed up his and the Rays' plight best: "It's a bad time to be playing bad."

Napoli was awarded a double, the first hit after Price had retired 12 consecutive batters, and moments later became Boston's first run.

Although the always optimistic skipper, Joe Maddon, thinks differently, the just-completed 3-7 road trip to the West Coast probably sealed Tampa Bay's chances of winning the division.

With Tuesday's jarring setback, the second-place Rays are 8 1/2 games behind the Red Sox -- the best team right now in the AL, if not all of Major League Baseball.

Returning home from the wretched West Coast trip did little to cure the epidemic of poor baseball the Rays have played since Aug. 25.

Maddon said before the game that winning the division, shooting high, is the team's goal. Keeping their grip on the Wild Card spot is more realistic.

"There's got to be this organic moment within the group that all of a sudden just pops," said Maddon. "Then, you're going to see it take off again. It cannot be contrived or fabricated. Something's got to happen within this group, whether it's a hit or whether it's a pitcher. Something has to occur that is going to get us on the right track again."

Pausing a moment, Maddon added: "These are the guys who are going to take us to the promised land. Something's got to pop -- that one wild moment that gets you going again."

A clutch hit once in a while might be the answer.

Tuesday night, with runners on first and second and two out in the second inning of a scoreless pitchers' duel, Red Sox starter Clay Buchholz fanned Jose Molina. End of threat.

In the eighth, after Yunel Escobar doubled with two out, Wil Myers popped out to the first baseman in foul territory. End of threat.

That a big 0-for-2 with runners in scoring position.

The Red Sox, on the other hand, showed why they have the best record (88-58) in the AL.

After Napoli led off the fifth inning with his double, Jonny Gomes singled him home to make it 1-0 and went to second on a throw to the plate. A sacrifice bunt moved Gomes to third, and he scored on Jarrod Saltalamacchia's sacrifice fly.

That was all Price allowed during eight innings, but the Red Sox twice were successful with runners in scoring position.

"We bunch two hits together, the double and the single, and a key bunt by Daniel Nava to move the runner over, and then the sacrifice fly," said Boston manager John Farrell. "We drive in a run, we manufacture another, and that was the difference tonight."

The Rays should pay close attention.

"We've had people on base, but just can't score," said Maddon, with a pained look on his face. "There's not a whole lot you can do right now except keep playing, keep grinding it out. There's no extra work to be done, just go out there and play."

On the just-completed trip, the Rays repeatedly watched their once-potent offense fizzle. They scored just 29 runs in the 10 games and batted only .177 with runners in scoring position. In the seven losses, they were a staggering 8-for-56 with runners in scoring position.

The offense obviously has been struggling, but a spell comes over the hitters when they look out and see runners on second or third. As hard as they try, they cannot bring them home.

Maybe the Rays should forget about the hitting coach and call in a psychiatrist.

"It is mental," said Maddon. "It's a player, a hitter all of a sudden attempting to do something differently in that moment. Whereas, when the moment's not there they are pretty much out there doing their thing.

"Then, all of a sudden, they're the guy who has to drive in the run. For some, the process shifts to the point where it becomes counter-productive. Guys that are really good at it understand the pitcher is the guy in trouble, not them.

"I want to believe, when it comes down to hitting with runners in scoring position, at some point the luck's got to come back to you. We've been so unlucky and not good at it the last two or three weeks, or month."

Two years ago after 142 games, the Rays had the same record they took the field with Tuesday night -- 78-64.

In the middle game of a three-game series against Boston at Tropicana Field then, Evan Longoria singled home Jennings in the 11th inning for a Tampa Bay victory. They went on to sweep the Red Sox.

With a torrid September, the Rays made up a nine-game deficit and, when Boston collapsed, won the Wild Card berth on the final day of the season.

Maddon says he's not going to use that miraculous finish to motivate his players.

"Only a few on this team were here then," he said.

Regardless, if the Rays could retrieve some of that magic this month, they might not be hanging by a thread for a trip to the postseason.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for

Tampa Bay Rays, Desmond Jennings, David Price