ST. PETERSBURG — Which victory impressed you most this season? The three-run, ninth-inning rally to beat the White Sox 8-7? The series-clincher against the Yankees when they came back from a 6-0 deficit to beat Gerrit Cole in 10 innings? The early Sunday morning game on Peacock when they beat the Dodgers 11-10?
How about this one:
The Rays beating the holy heck out of doubt. Crushing skepticism and rolling over cynicism.
Once upon a time, the world — and I — seemed fairly convinced the Rays erred by not beefing up their offense in the offseason, and Tampa Bay obliterated that narrative with one of the most impressive two-month starts in memory. On June 9, the Rays had a 47-19 record, a lineup averaging 5.8 runs a game and a double-digit lead on 90% of the league.
A month later, they are still in first place. They still have the best record in the American League. But six games, and six consecutive losses, in July have rekindled the memories of a 2022 Rays team that struck out too much, looked baffled in the box and clueless in the clutch.
Is that fair? Heck no. Is it understandable? You betcha.
The Rays have averaged 2.7 runs in those six losses and have looked nothing like the team that turned games into a two-hour frat party most nights.
So, what happened? How could an entire lineup turn cold simultaneously? The six losses have obviously been the most noticeable sign, but this lull began several weeks ago and is only now reaching a crescendo going into the All-Star break.
”I do think we’ve done some things here uncharacteristically,” manager Kevin Cash said. “We did such a good job for two and a half months of not expanding, really controlling the strike zone. I think there’s been a little bit of a difference in that. That’s probably some guys that are pressing at the plate. It was seven to nine guys all clicking at one time, and then it turned to three or four. And then it would flip over to another three or four. Right now, we’ve got a bunch of guys that it’s challenging at the plate.”
What does that look like? Through their first 71 games, the Rays struck out in 22.1% of their plate appearances and drew walks in 8.9%. In the last 20 games, the strikeouts have increased to 24.8% and the walks have dipped to 7.4.
By themselves, those numbers are not particularly dramatic. Or alarming. But they are at odds with the happy-go-lucky story of a more patient, disciplined, smarter lineup.
They also suggest the hitters could be finding themselves in less-advantageous counts, and that can be a huge deal. For instance, going into Friday night, the Rays had a .265 batting average and a .900 OPS when starting a count at 2-1. Conversely, they hit .184 with a .548 OPS after the count goes to 1-2. The difference between one ball/strike early in the count can be the difference between a monster lineup and a team struggling to generate any rallies.
“I think you could probably see, at times, just everyone trying to get that big hit and trying to get the momentum moving,” said second baseman Brandon Lowe. “And I can’t speak for any guy on the team and say that they are doing that, but it’s something that’s possible. People understand where we’re at, not playing the greatest baseball, and trying to flip a switch.”
Since June 15, Wander Franco is hitting .215 with 15 strikeouts and five walks. Josh Lowe is hitting .214 since June 10 with 28 strikeouts and three walks. Harold Ramirez is hitting .184 with 12 strikeouts and two walks since mid-June. Most noticeably, Randy Arozarena, who turned himself into an MVP candidate by nearly doubling his walk rate this season, has 16 strikeouts and only three walks in his last 12 games.
But there is a significant difference between what has been happening the last few weeks and what the Rays went through at the end of last season.
“Lulls are going to happen in this game,” hitting coach Chad Mottola said. “The good news is we have everything on tape of having success with the way we were approaching things. When you start losing the underdog role and you start getting complacent, this is what can happen.
“So we just have to stay on this. Just because you proved you can do it, you don’t want to just back off. So we have to go back to our baseline of seeing the ball and recognizing the strike zone and pitches you can handle. We got a way from it a little bit just because of human nature. So now it’s time to wake them up a little and get back to where we were.”
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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Source: Yahoo Sports