Rays struggling to build momentum: 'There is some urgency'

June 8th, 2024

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays had plenty of reasons to feel confident as they returned home to face the Orioles on Friday night.

They’d won three games in a row, sparked by solid pitching and improved hitting from key regulars like Brandon Lowe, Randy Arozarena and Jose Siri. They were back at .500, with a chance to claim a winning record for the first time in 2 1/2 weeks.

But that momentum only carried the Rays so far, as has often been the case so far this season. The Rays gave up three home runs and couldn’t match the Orioles’ powerful lineup as they lost the series opener, 6-3, at Tropicana Field. Despite their modest winning streak, the Rays have lost 10 of their last 16 games.

“That's kind of what our record is stating, that we can't get a lot of momentum going,” manager Kevin Cash said. “But we can bounce right back tomorrow and play a good baseball game.”

This will be a tough time for Tampa Bay to make a push, though, even with the position player group at full strength after Taylor Walls’ return from the injured list and the pitching staff getting healthier. Friday’s defeat began a stretch with 19 games in 20 days, featuring series against the Orioles, Cubs, Braves, Twins, Pirates and Mariners.

Four of those teams have winning records, while Chicago and Pittsburgh are hovering just below the break-even point, like Tampa Bay. But the Rays have now lost 16 of 25 games against teams with a .500 record or better, which is a troubling trend considering they have the toughest remaining strength of schedule in the Majors after playing MLB’s fourth-easiest schedule to this point.

“This is a big series right here, these four games. We’ve kind of had the fits and starts of, ‘All right, we’ll win a few, lose a few, win a few, lose a few.’ We need to go here, and there is some urgency,” president of baseball operations Erik Neander said Friday afternoon. “I do believe this is a group that can take off. … Thankfully there’s plenty of time, because we’ve got to make up some ground.”

But the Rays have spent the entire season to this point within four games of .500, and they haven’t been above that point since they were 25-24 entering play on May 21.

Speaking before the game, Neander reiterated his belief that the Rays are capable of playing better than they have to this point. He also offered a reminder that anything can happen once a team reaches the postseason, as proven last year by two No. 6 seeds reaching the World Series.

“We have a belief that this team is capable of playing much better than .500, and you want to see that through,” Neander said. “But by way of being at .500, these are the kinds of questions that are inevitably asked. The longer you stay around here, or if we back up a little, the more you’ve got to think about it.”

They still have more than seven weeks before the July 30 Trade Deadline forces them to make any major decisions regarding their roster. But at some point, the Rays need to start seeing their production more closely align with their potential.

“I think we’re definitely short of where we all know we can be. I think there’s definitely people in this room who maybe have not put the performances out there that they are used to putting out there or would like to, but everybody in here is supportive of one another,” said Walls, who went 2-for-4 with a double in his season debut. “We know there’s better days ahead, and I think there’s definitely time for us and room for us to start playing our best ball. What better time to start than this weekend?”

It didn’t start Friday night, however.

The Rays hung in against the Orioles for a few innings on Friday night. Starter Aaron Civale gave up two runs in the second, but Siri stayed hot with a solo homer and Amed Rosario drove in Yandy Díaz with a game-tying sacrifice fly in the third.

But Civale gave up a tiebreaking, two-run homer to Ryan Mountcastle in the fifth, and Jordan Westburg put the game out of reach with a two-run shot in the eighth off Chris Devenski. It wound up being the Rays’ 23rd loss of the season by at least three runs, second-most in the AL behind the White Sox.

“I got behind in the count on that, so it's a little bit more comfortable swing on that guy's end,” said Civale, who struck out eight over five innings. “Hitters are more comfortable when they're ahead in the count. That's something that I can control and work on next time.”