Scuffling offense has Rays at a loss for answers

'We need to kind of turn it around,' Cash says after Tampa Bay's seventh loss in eight games

May 29th, 2024

ST. PETERSBURG -- The question has grown familiar. The answer does not come easy. If it did, the Rays wouldn’t be asked for it so often.

What can Tampa Bay do to get its struggling lineup going?

That was again the topic of conversation after the Rays were shut out for the third time this season in a 3-0 defeat to the A’s on Tuesday night at Tropicana Field. They couldn’t figure out rookie starter Mitch Spence and Oakland’s bullpen as they lost for the seventh time in their past eight games, falling three games below .500 at 26-29.

“I keep getting asked that question. I don't have the best answer,” manager Kevin Cash said. “You just continue to work. We talk about [how] hitting can be contagious at times. Right now, it’s contagious, maybe, in the other direction. We need to kind of turn it around.”

The Rays didn’t manage a hit off Spence -- making his third Major League start -- until José Caballero hit a bloop single to center field with one out in the sixth inning. It was eerily reminiscent of Sunday’s game against the Royals, when Caballero broke up Michael Wacha’s perfect game bid in the sixth, only there was no late rally to save Tampa Bay’s day this time.

This is the second time in franchise history the Rays have been held hitless through five innings in back-to-back games, as they were no-hit for five innings in three straight games against Cleveland from June 29-July 1, 2015.

They didn’t get a runner to second base Tuesday night until there were two outs in the ninth. Their three hits matched a season-low mark. They lost without allowing an earned run for the 10th time in franchise history, including the second time this season. During this eight-game skid, they’ve scored 18 runs while batting just .166 as a team.

In a quiet postgame clubhouse, the Rays credited Spence, a Rule 5 Draft pick out of the Yankees’ system, for his impressive performance. But they also acknowledged the obvious: They need to be better.

“We can't hide here. Obviously, we're scuffling. There's no fix,” said catcher Ben Rortvedt, who caught Spence with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre last season. “I think the worst thing we could do is really panic or stress. We just have to go about each day, get our work in, show up, control our attitude and effort, and we're going to find a way out of this.”

But how? The Rays have tried their share of tactics. They’ve maximized their platoon advantages whenever possible. They’ve bumped struggling star Randy Arozarena down the lineup and occasionally shifted Yandy Díaz out of the leadoff spot; Díaz hit second on Tuesday, and Arozarena batted sixth.

None of it has worked, at least not for long.

There are bound to be calls for slugging top prospect Junior Caminero, catcher René Pinto or some other move to shake up Tampa Bay’s lineup. But the Rays seem intent on getting more out of their current roster.

“These are our guys, and they're good players, and they're gonna get out of it,” Cash said. “Sometimes patience can be really challenging. And patience from their vantage point, it is probably being really tested right now for them.”

Still, Cash acknowledged the Rays’ approach at the plate has been lacking. He said opposing starters are “not doing anything different against us. We’re prepared, and it seems like we’re just not able to counter back with anything. … I think we keep repeating the same mistake over and over.”

With the Rays’ complete lack of offense, one mistake would have been enough to doom them against the A’s. Zack Littell didn’t make many as he struck out a career-high nine batters over seven innings. But there were a few in the sixth, and they proved costly.

First came an error by second baseman Brandon Lowe, which allowed Max Schuemann to reach safely. Then came a rare walk by Littell, putting JJ Bleday on with one out. Then, with two outs, Littell left an 0-1 sweeper up in the zone that Miguel Andujar swatted out to left field.

“Just a bad pitch. He put a good swing on it,” Littell said. “I got away with a few throughout the game. That was by far the worst.”

But one pitch wasn’t the issue in question Tuesday night.

“These guys are going out there every night, and it's got to be really frustrating for them,” Littell said. “There's definitely not any doubt from us that they can come out of it. It sucks to say we'll sit here and keep waiting it out, but at this point, you kind of hope that one game kind of sets us right and gets the lineup going and we can kind of put this in the past.”