Struggling Rays seek answers

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – If the Tampa Bay Rays hit the nadir during the last weekend in April, then there is not much more to travel. In what was likely one of the most embarrassing three-game stretches in club history, the Rays went from addressing concerns to experiencing consequences of potential far-reaching magnitude.

When the three-game set against the Chicago White Sox began last Friday night, the Sox dropped 22 of their opening 25 games They were outscored by a differential of 85 runs and caused baseball historians to reach deep into the annuals of the game to find similar starts by major league teams.

If the prospect seemed strong for the Rays to address lingering concerns, manager Kevin Cash tapped three pitchers at the top of his rotation to start each game. Two, Zach Eflin and Zack Littell, took losses in games one and three and receiver Phil Maton delivered a two-run, walk-off homer to Andrew Benintendi, his first HR of the season and a .191 hitter, in the middle game. The three-game sweep to the lowly Sox was as much an embarrassment as this was a humiliation.

All of which sunk the Rays deeper into an uncommon abyss.

Before the Rays embarked on their current six-game trip, Cash told reporters his team needs to put up crooked numbers early in games. That would create a comfort zone for his starters and direct one way out of the current misery. After the three-game sweep by the White Sox, Cash reiterated that need.

“We have to find a way to get our pitchers some runs early,” he told Bally Sports after the Chicago series. “I don’t have the answer as to why it’s not coming. We’ll continue to support them.”

The double dilemma of lack of production and injuries represent two principal reasons for the current state of affairs.

Pitching difficulties began last season.

That’s when the starting rotation was decimated. First, left-hander Shane McClanahan underwent Tommy John surgery last August for forearm tightness. That quickly followed when righthander Drew Rasmussen underwent Tommy John surgery for right elbow flexor strain and also last season, lefthander Jeffrey Springs underwent Tommy John surgery for ligament damage. All three were considered “top of the rotation” starters and Cash was forced to open the current season with Eflin, Littell, right-hander Ryan Pepiot (acquired in an off-season trade with the Dodgers), and Aaron Civale, acquired at the trade deadline last season from Cleveland.

With one month into the season, the plan for McClanahan, Rasmussen and Springs to return sometime in August. With each, there is no guarantee this will happen.

Add lingering injuries to second baseman Brandon Lowe and outfielder Josh Lowe and Cash has juggled a lineup short on overall production.

Then, consider the offensive struggles experienced by two of the club’s dependent hitters, Yandy Diaz and Randy Arozarena (hitting .152 after the Chicago series and benched over the last week). Diaz is the reigning American League batting champion, hit 330 a year ago and that is also a team record. After the Chicago series, Diaz was hitting .232, the lowest in his eight-year major league career.

As a team, the Rays have won back-to-back games only twice this season. One was a two straight over the Colorado Rockies on April 6 and 7 and the other was a modest three-game winning streak. That featured two over the Angles and one over the Giants from April 9-11.

Coming into Monday night’s series opener in Milwaukee, the Rays had dropped six of their previous seven games and were uncharacteristically three games under 500.

The current state of affairs is clear and Cash only offered a general and clouded response to the dilemma.

“Our guys understand what’s going on,” he added to Bally Sports after the Chicago series. “They are frustrated, but by the end of the day, it’s going to be on us to turn it around.”

Elsewhere … on Monday night, the Rays open that three-game set in Milwaukee, who led the NL Central by one-half game over the Cubs and two over Cincinnati. Cash gives the ball to Ryan Pepiot (2-2, 3.77 ERA in five starts) and he is opposed by right-hander Bryse Wilson (2-0, 3.50 ERA for two starts). The series concludes with a Tuesday night game and a Wednesday matinee. …. Then, the first of three, nine-game home stands. This one opens Friday night and has the Mets, the White Sox, and Yankees in for three. Others include a nine-game home stand in late May with the Red Sox, Royals, and A’s, and later in mid-August, the Orioles, Astros and Diamondbacks visit Tropicana Field in succession.

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