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Rays staying course despite early season struggles

Tampa Bay sits last in tough American League East, but Maddon refuses to panic

SEATTLE -- There's something about this picture that isn't right.

The Tampa Bay Rays are in last place in the American League East. They are seven games below .500.

They haven't been through times like this since they were the Devil Rays, back in 2007, putting an end to their first decade of existence, in which they never lost fewer than 90 games in a season.

The Rays shed the Devil tag the next year and became baseball's little angels. They were the feel-good story, the little team that could. They had a tight budget, learned to live with it, and made life miserable for the neighborhood's rich kids in the Bronx and Boston.

Four times in the last six years, Tampa Bay advanced to the playoffs. The Rays won at least 90 games five times, and they had a winning record all six seasons.

Nobody has done better, not the Yankees nor the Red Sox nor the Cardinals nor the Giants.


It has been a dreamlike adventure.

Until now.

And on Monday night, bad got worse. The Rays didn't hit enough, which isn't new. They weren't quite sharp enough off the mound, which isn't new. But they also stumbled in the field, which is new.

Tampa Bay fell behind 9-0 by the end of the third inning en route to a 12-5 loss -- its fifth in the last six games, and the team's 23rd in 39 games this season.

"We got ambushed," said manager Joe Maddon. "We sashayed into the canyon, and they were firing at us from both sides."

How bad was it? Well, in a park known as a pitcher's best friend, the Rays equaled their season high for runs allowed.

Tampa Bay committed four errors in a game for the second time this year, but only the fourth time since 2006. This is a team that, even in what has been a slow start, went into the game with a .988 fielding percentage, a smidgen back of Toronto, which leads the AL.

It doesn't compute. The analytics are there. The results aren't.

"The unusual part of the offense is we are top five in terms of working pitches [3.9 per at-bat] and hard contact, which doesn't make sense when you see our runs scored," said Maddon.

It has been one of those years for the Rays.

Tampa Bay has given up nine or more runs in a game eight times, matching Philadelphia for the most in the Major Leagues. And that five-run second the Mariners put together on Monday was the eighth time the Rays have given up five in an inning this year.

But think about it.

Cesar Ramos started on Monday night, and he hung around for 6 2/3 innings to help salvage a bullpen, throwing a career-high 115 pitches. He threw more strikes (75) than he had thrown pitches in a game since Sept. 29, 2009, when he threw 86 pitches in a five-inning effort for San Diego.

Two months ago in Spring Training, Ramos was battling Erik Bedard and Jake Odorizzi for the fifth spot in the rotation. Now? Well, Ramos started on Monday. Odorizzi will start in the series finale on Wednesday, and Bedard is scheduled to start on Thursday night in Anaheim.

The three of them have worked fewer than six innings in 13 of their 18 starts, a key factor in the bullpen having worked an AL-leading 138 2/3 innings. Alex Cobb is expected shortly, but he's been out since April 13 with a left oblique strain. Matt Moore went down on April 8, and he is out for at least the rest of the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. And Jeremy Hellickson opened the season on the disabled list after undergoing right elbow surgery, but he could be back by the All-Star break.

That, however, doesn't help right now. The Rays have an ERA of 4.35, which is higher than they have had in any of the six years of success. Heck, they've had an ERA above 3.82 only once since then -- 4.32 in 2009.

"It's been different," said Maddon. "Last week was an example of a time when we normally would have righted ourselves at home. We lost a lot of close games we typically win. At home, we are normally able to figure that out."

Tampa Bay arrived home at the Trop a week ago with a 15-17 record, ready for three-game visits by Baltimore and Cleveland. The Rays lost five of the six games -- two by one run, two by two runs and one by three runs.

It's a challenge.

Maddon knows that. But he has dealt with challenges before. Maddon did, after all, find a way to take a franchise with a decade of failure and turn it into a legitimate contender in the AL East in his third year on the job.

And then along came this year.

"What it's done is tested everything I believe in," said Maddon.

It's about maintaining his focus. It's about not overreacting. It's about one-on-one moments with the players, not a team meeting.

"I only [have team meetings] when I get angry," Maddon said. "There's nothing for me to get angry about.

"Team meetings are for when you think the team has quit or the guys are feeling sorry for themselves. These guys haven't quit. They aren't feeling sorry for themselves. We just have to keep doing what we believe in."

It's the only way Maddon knows. It is an approach that has provided the Rays success that is as good as anybody has enjoyed in the last six seasons.

No sense abandoning it now.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for
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