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Struggling Rays hope to turn season around

ST. PETERSBURG -- Andrew Friedman and his front office staff have seen the same thing everyone else has seen. They've watched every day as an often maddening season unfolds, one that took the Rays into Tuesday's action with easily the worst record in baseball.

Manager Joe Maddon has seen it for 65 games. Not since the Devil Rays roamed Tropicana Field has Tampa Bay struggled this much. The Rays have held the Majors' worst record for six days. Before this stretch, Tampa Bay had spent exactly one day since 2008 with the Majors' worst record. The Rays haven't been this far under .500 since finishing the 2007 season at 66-96.

Baseball Prospectus' odds give them a less than 3 percent chance to make the postseason for the fifth time since 2008.

Maddon has maintained his typically positive attitude and optimistic outlook, but these two months or so have baffled him as well. How has his club, picked by many this spring to reach and possibly win the World Series, sputtered to a 24-41 record? How is this Rays team, with its club-record payroll and seemingly ideal blend of talent, the worst in baseball?

But now, the most pressing question for the Rays is about what's ahead, not what led them here. It's can they turn it around?

"I want to believe that it's very difficult for a good group to go this bad this long and not turn it around," Maddon said.

The starting pitching has struggled at times to overcome injuries to Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson and Alex Cobb. But Cobb is back, David Price is putting up historic strikeout-to-walk numbers and Chris Archer continues to develop into a front-line starter. Erik Bedard has helped steady the back of the rotation as well.

The one thing they need to do is pitch deep into games, as the Rays have won only five of the 34 games in which their starter has failed to pitch six innings.

The Rays' bullpen had to pick up a lot of the early season slack. They lead the Majors in relief innings pitched and often were stretched thin earlier this year. Grant Balfour, brought in for two years and $12 million, pitched his way out of Tampa Bay's closer job.

But with Jake McGee, Joel Peralta, Juan Carlos Oviedo, Brad Boxberger and Cesar Ramos turning in solid work and a number of reliable options available in the Minors if needed, there's hope for the relief corps.

So now, the Rays' challenge is the same as always: getting their lineup to crank out enough runs to support the pitching staff. They have the lowest-scoring offense in the American League. They've been shut out nine times. They've scored fewer than five runs 43 times, and they're 10-33 in those games.

"We've never been an offensive juggernaut. That's never been our M.O. We've always pitched it and caught it," Maddon said. "We haven't been able to fill in some of the blanks offensively. We were able to do that. We're not able to do that right now."

Tampa Bay believes its season-long struggle to put runs on the board has been a confluence of several factors, but it ultimately comes down to a collective case of underperformance. Seemingly every hitter has been worse this season than his track record would suggest.

But that's also why the Rays cling to some sliver of hope -- the same reason there was so much of it for this team during the early morning Spring Training workouts in Port Charlotte, Fla. They believe they've put together a talented roster, one capable of making a deep run in October, no matter how many players are injured or how far back they've fallen in the standings.

"I think the biggest and best thing about data and the things that we use is it's kind of a fog light," Friedman said Wednesday, when the Rays returned home from the worst road trip in Tampa Bay history. "We have that same reaction that other people do when you're watching a game and certain things don't play out the way you want them to. But under the surface and peeling it back, we have really good players that are going to have really good years. It just hasn't synced up so far this year.

"Everything that I know about the game and everything that we've done in looking at things suggests that we're going to be significantly better. So I believe in that."

That's why Maddon set a high bar for them Wednesday night: get to 50-50 and see what happens. It may seem like a daunting goal, but Maddon pointed out the Rays have gone on similar runs while "standing on our heads in the past." And it's true: They went 21-5 last July.

But there is a sense of urgency for Tampa Bay as the club tries to turn things around.

"It's definitely doable for this club. We haven't played anywhere near what we believe we're capable of," second baseman Ben Zobrist said. "That belief is there that it's going to happen at some point. We just hope when it happens, it's not too late."

As the losses pile up, the rumor mill has begun churning about the availability of players like Price, Zobrist and outfielder Matt Joyce so the Rays can replenish their farm system, save money and look toward next year. But Friedman said he was "not at all" thinking about the idea that Tampa Bay might become sellers before the July 31 Trade Deadline.

The Rays have almost their entire roster under team control for several more years, too, so their plan is as much about 2015 as it is this year. It's impossible to predict what will happen in July or further down the road, of course, but it would seem that Tampa Bay plans to keep its core intact.

"If we didn't believe in the talent level of this group, we'd have a different mindset, probably. But we do [believe in them]," Friedman said. "When we wake up one day, hopefully we're right back in the thick of things. You can't do that if you don't have the talent to do it. But we believe very strongly that we do."

The Rays' season hinges on that belief turning into reality. They have underperformed to a stunning degree thus far, but is that who they are? Are they the worst team in baseball? Or have their overlapping cold spells simply set up one collective hot streak that somehow slingshots them back into contention?

It would be a long climb back, and it would have to start immediately. But the Rays believe in the numbers, and they believe in their players.

"We believe that these guys at the end of the year will be plus-or-minus a few percent of kind of who they've been," Friedman said. "You think, at the end of the year, these guys for the most part are going to be who they are.

"If that's the case, then we're in for a fun four months of watching guys play really well."

Adam Berry is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry.

Tampa Bay Rays, Chris Archer, Grant Balfour, Erik Bedard, Brad Boxberger, Matt Joyce, Jake McGee, Matt Moore, Juan Carlos Oviedo, Joel Peralta, David Price, Cesar Ramos, Ben Zobrist