With the Rays off to a shaky start offensively this season, hitting coach Chad Mottola admitted he’s found a little comfort in seeing how dominant pitchers have been everywhere throughout baseball. More than anything, though, Mottola said Thursday afternoon he remained confident in the work Tampa Bay’s hitters were doing to improve whether it showed up immediately or not.
Even after breaking out in a 9-1 win over the Yankees on Thursday night, the Rays are hitting just .219/.300/.366 as a team. Offensive production is down throughout the league, as all Major League hitters began the day with a collective .234/.311/.390 slash line, and Tampa Bay has been emblematic of some of those issues.
For one, the Rays began the day leading the Majors with 397 strikeouts, then struck out 16 more times against the Yankees. It’s a “ridiculous rate” that must be reduced, Mottola said, as they are currently on pace to surpass the 2019 Tigers (1,595) for the Major League record. They’ve already had 27 games with double-digit strikeouts. They’ve hit just .200 with runners in scoring position, striking out a MLB-leading 116 times over 325 at-bats in those situations.
“Everybody's kind of got a different problem going on. It's team-wide. It happens a couple times a year. There's no panic,” Mottola said. “It's a long season. Last year, it felt like everything was compressed. This year, it's much nicer to take the time and work out for long term. There's no doubt there's a buildup. But this happens. At different times during the year, guys are clicking, everything's moving. This happens to be a lull.”
Mottola acknowledged that most of their issues are the result of hitters pressing, feeling a need to carry the lineup out of its collective slump and swinging at pitches out of the zone with runners on base. Mottola called the issues with runners in scoring position “glaring, for sure,” and said he’d like to see the Rays shorten up in certain situations, put the ball in play and put more pressure on opposing defenses.
“It's not an individual thing,” manager Kevin Cash said. “There are multiple guys that probably to date have not performed like they're capable of, and we're going to continue to stay optimistic and say that, when they get going, they're going to make up for a little bit of lost time.”
Mottola is taking the same view, emphasizing the long haul and the importance of making sure the Rays’ hitters don’t get caught in a cycle of pursuing one “Band-aid” solution after another. Sometimes, the process of ditching bad habits and creating sustainably better swing mechanics requires patience. But ideally, as the Rays’ strikeouts keep piling up and they near the second quarter of the season, it’ll all come together soon.
“It's one of these things that has to happen through quality of work, not just a quick Band-aid, because then next month, we'll be chasing the same thing again,” Mottola said. “So I have confidence in this group of guys that, in time, we will be fine. It's just going about it the right way and taking our time to make sure it's long term.”
• First baseman Ji-Man Choi (knee soreness) felt better on Thursday after undergoing treatment on Wednesday, but Cash said Choi was “just not quite ready yet.” Choi will likely have to play through some soreness in his knee even when he does return, and the Rays hope he is ready soon enough that he won’t require another rehab assignment with Triple-A Durham.
“I'm hoping it's day to day here, but I can't exactly say,” Cash said. “He can't take too much time off because he's worked hard, we've worked hard to get him timed up at the plate. We don't want to have that many days off to where he's not seeing live pitching.”
• The Rays still expect to activate high-leverage reliever Diego Castillo (groin) from the 10-day injured list before Friday’s series opener against the Mets. They cleared a spot for Castillo on the roster and in the bullpen by optioning right-hander Louis Head to Triple-A Durham after Thursday’s game.
• Right-hander Michael Wacha (right hamstring tightness) felt good after throwing a bullpen session on Thursday but likely won’t return this weekend. Cash said Wacha is scheduled to throw on the side again, and the Rays don’t want to rush him back given the risk of aggravating an injury while he still feels some tightness in his hamstring.
• Right-hander Chris Mazza (shoulder) threw a 25-pitch bullpen session on Thursday and felt “very good,” Cash said. The Rays are determining his next step, which could be facing hitters, and where it might take place.
Around the horn
• Shortstop Willy Adames and catcher Mike Zunino were out of the lineup on Thursday. Thrust into everyday catching duty after sharing time early this season with the injured Francisco Mejía, Zunino started each of Tampa Bay’s previous six games. Kevan Smith started behind the plate on Thursday, although Cash said Zunino was available off the bench if needed.
• The Rays will begin their only series of the season against the Mets on Friday night at Tropicana Field. Tyler Glasnow will start the opener, and Shane McClanahan is set to pitch Saturday. Tampa Bay won’t have to face two-time National League Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom, who is on the 10-day IL due to right side tightness.
• Shortstop Greg Jones, the Rays’ No. 8 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, made his season debut for High-A Bowling Green on Wednesday after missing the start of the season due to a left quad strain he sustained late in Spring Training. And the 23-year-old immediately made an impact, going 2-for-3 with a walk and a three-run homer in the third inning of an 8-7 win. Both of Jones’ professional home runs have been three-run shots.