ST. PETERSBURG -- Despite entering Thursday’s game with the best record in the American League, the Rays’ offense has struggled over the past week and a half, and that continued in a 4-3 loss to the Red Sox at Tropicana Field.
Over the last nine games, Tampa Bay's offense is averaging 3.7 runs per game and entered the series opener with Boston game batting just .192 in September. For comparison, the Rays averaged 5.3 runs per game in August and had a team OPS of .798, which carried the team to first place in the AL East.
“We have a lineup right now full of guys that it’s just not coming easy for them,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash. “This is a tough game. It’s never easy, but when you have a bunch of guys, kind of 1-9 [in the order] that are not feeling it right now, you’re going to have nights like that.”
The losses of Yandy Díaz (right hamstring) and Mike Zunino (left oblique) have played a role in the club's recent struggles. Díaz, who last played on Aug. 31, leads the team with a .428 on-base percentage.
But aside from a pair of injuries, what’s behind some of the recent struggles at the plate for the Rays? Let’s take a look.
Strikeouts and hard contact
In August, the Rays did a good job of limiting strikeouts and hitting the ball hard, especially when it was in the zone. In 512 at-bats last month, Tampa Bay hitters struck out just 23.1 percent of the time and they had an expected batting average of .253, which is usually aided by hard contact.
Though still a relatively small sample size, neither of those things has carried into September. The Rays entered the Red Sox series with a strikeout rate of 31.3 percent and their expected batting average was just .216.
On Thursday, Tampa Bay struck out 17 times and recorded just five hard-hit balls against Mike Kickham and Ryan Weber, each of whom has an ERA of at least 5.00 this season.
“I think the main thing is us trying to get back to doing what we do best, and that’s putting together good at-bats and hitting the ball hard,” said Rays outfielder Austin Meadows. “I feel like some of us, including me, can try and do too much in certain situations and then we end up striking out or doing something we didn’t plan on doing.”
The most obvious reason that Tampa Bay has been struggling at the plate is because the club has multiple key bats slumping at the same time. Meadows, Brandon Lowe, Willy Adames and Hunter Renfroe are among the struggling Rays.
Though Meadows, Lowe and Renfroe all drove in a run on Thursday, with Renfroe and Lowe hitting back-to-back homers, the trio has struggled for a couple of weeks. Lowe, who went 1-for-3, is 7-for-57 in his last 17 games, lowering his average from .337 to .252.
“I think it’s that point of the year that some guys start to hit that little slump, but nothing that doesn’t happen every single year,” Lowe said. “We’re going to hit our way out of it. It’s just something that usually does happen.”
Meadows' RBI double in the fifth inning is his only hit in his last 19 at-bats. Adames has struck out 10 times in his last three games at Tropicana Field. In his last at-bat, Adames decided to use goggles, seemingly to help his vision. He worked a two-out walk.
“They’re allowed to have kind of the ups and downs of the season,” Cash said of Lowe and Meadows. “You would just rather it come when other guys are filling that void a little bit. Right now, we’re just not doing it as good as we’re capable of.”
The big hit
As is usually the case when an offense is scuffling, the Rays have not been able to come through with the big hit, when necessary. In the last 14 games, Tampa Bay is batting .192 (23-for-120) with runners in scoring position, including a 1-for-8 effort in the series-opening loss.
“These guys come to play every single day, and they do such a good job of erasing a tough loss or a couple tough at-bats and put that somewhere else and get ready to win a game,” Cash said. “We’re just -- that big pitch, that big hit has eluded us here lately.”