Are the Rays stuck in quicksand?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – We’re two months into the major league season and the Tampa Bay Rays, one of the most successful franchises over the past decade and one-half, appear to tread water. Some may even suggest they have, upon occasion, flatlined.

Passing the first 50-game portion of their season, the Rays, coming into a holiday weekend series with Kansas City at home, are playing under .500 baseball. Given their past caliber of play and productive level of players, this current sequence seems more of a real consequence than an aberration.

In dropping an 8-1 decision to the Royals before 18,368 Friday night in Tropicana Field, the Rays appeared to sink to a level that is clearly unacceptable to manager Kevin Cash and his band of decision-makers. Coming into Saturday’s match with the Royals, Tampa Bay dropped five straight and previously, won four straight. Some would call this a maddening, inconsistent consequence.

“Offensively, we’re not getting it done,” Cash said after Friday’s night game. “It’s every facet of the offense. We’re expanding on pitches that we probably can’t handle. The pitches we can handle, we’re not doing any damage. We’re not able to piece too much together. Players are getting the messages, and they’re putting in the work. At the end of the day, we have to start to get results. I’m concerned. Yeah, but I’ve been concerned for quite some time.”

One reality is clearly the lack of efficient starting pitching. With three potential starters, Drew Rasmussen, Shane McClanahan and Jeffrey Springs all recovering from Tommy John surgery and possibly back sometime in August, Cash was forced into a juggling act.

Among his current starters, Zach Eflin (currently on the IR with back inflammation), Aaron Civale, Taj Bradley, Zack Littell and Ryan Pepiot, this quintet has a combined record of 11-14 and an aggregate 4.12 ERA. Cash was compelled to resurrect his famed “opener,” in which a member of the bullpen starts a game.

In Friday’s contest, Cash gave the ball to reliever Shawn Armstrong, who started three previous games and relieved in 15 of the Rays’ first 51 games. In the true “opener” sense, Armstrong pitched the initial two innings and then gave way to lefty Tyler Alexander. After a creditable effort in Toronto as a starter, in which he carried a perfect game into the seventh inning, Alexander imploded against the Royals. In taking the loss, Alexander became the first reliever in franchise history to record highs for both hits allowed (11) and runs (8).

“I wasn’t making quality pitches,” he said candidly. “I didn’t control counts as I would like but (the Royals) are a hot lineup right now.”

Then, he admitted, “I’m not concerned. You can be, if you want.”

Of equal concern is the offense.

At times, this is dynamic enough to win but for the most part in the opening two months, bats have been silent, quiet, and taciturn. On the radar directly is outfielder Randy Arozarena, who went 0-for-4 Friday night and his batting average dropped to .159. In an attempt to alleviate some pressure, Cash dropped Arozarena to sixth in the lineup Friday night. That is from his usual second or third hole in the batting order.

“Randy is not a guy who has typically shown much pressure,” Cash said before Friday’s game. “When there is pressure, Randy is known to rise to the occasion. We are in a little bit of a unique situation with him and we’ll continue to support him. Maybe getting him one less at-bat (by hitting sixth) will help and give (third baseman) Isaac Paredes that one extra bat.”

On the diamond … in the opener of the series against Kansas City, the Rays faced righthander Seth Lugo, who put together a tremendous start to the season.

Coming into Friday night’s game, the veteran right-hander was 7-1 and a 1.79 ERA. Against Tampa Bay, he continued to dominate the opposition. On Friday, he finished with a strong seven innings, allowed one run, and dropped his ERA to 1.74.

After surrendering a run in the opening inning, Lugo allowed only four base runners over his final six innings. Here, Lugo walked Jonny DeLuca with two in the third and walked Brandon Lowe with two in the fifth, As well, he allowed only a two-out double to Yandy Diaz in the fifth and a lead-off infield single to Jose Caballero in the seventh. That was the extent of the Rays’ offense against Lugo.

Kansas City manager Matt Quatrano, who spent five seasons on Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash’s staff (2018-2022), offered this explanation.

“(Lugo’s) success starts with strike-throwing,” Quatrano said before Friday night’s game. “He can command the ball on both sides of the plate and up and down. Seemingly, that’s whenever he wants. He has many ways to beat hitters but first and foremost, he challenges hitters regularly.”

More of the Royals … the series continues with a Saturday afternoon game. This features Aaron Civale (2-4, 5.92) facing righty Brady Singler (4-2, 2.70). The set concludes with a Sunday matinee. Here, look for righty Taj Bradley (1-2, 4.00) opposing righty Michael Wacha (4-4, 4.45). Then, Oakland comes in for three next week and that concludes the current Rays’ home stand.

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