ST. SAINT PETERSBURG. Fallen in decline, the Tampa Bay Rays believe in themselves.
Baseball’s best team for most of this season has seen a historic start give way to a July swoon that has weakened its grip on the top record in the American League.
The rising Baltimore Orioles won three of four between division rivals over the weekend, taking first place in the AL East and ahead of the reeling Rays, who opened the year with 13 straight wins, 2 games off the pace, before the Orioles won on Monday night over the Phillies.
Tampa Bay entered July with a season-high 6.5-game lead in the division, but stumbled into an AL-4-14-worst record this month, battling offense and enduring injuries that test the depth of their starting pitch.
However, the Races haven’t racked up some of the best major tournament ratings in a decade without being resourceful and resilient, which is one reason manager Kevin Cash is confident his team will bounce back and finish strong as it aims for a fifth consecutive playoff berth.
“We’re just a very talented team that’s going through a tough time right now,” Cash said.
“I guess every guy out there right now has a sense of urgency, wanting to do their part and wanting to be that big jock or have that big swing that gets us moving,” Cash added after Sunday’s 5-3 loss to the Orioles. “It’s just not coming right now.
After two straight wins against bottom seed Kansas City after the All-Star break, the Flight lost 7-of-8 and fell behind the Orioles. In July, they hit three or fewer runs 11 times, including five one-run games.
“The hardest thing about this game is the hitting. … Our job is to just keep working, try to stay positive,” All-Star first baseman Yandy Diaz said through an interpreter.
“And we still have plenty of time. We still have about two months or so,” Diaz added. “We’re going to stay focused and stay positive and I think we’ll come out of this.”
With a projected rotation of Shane McClanahan, Tyler Glasnow, Zach Eflin, Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs, the Races entered spring training expecting to have one of the deepest pitchers in the major leagues.
All five have been on the injured list, forcing Cash to constantly adjust pitching plans.
While McClanahan (11-1, 2.89 ERA) and high school alumnus Hagerty Eflin (11-5, 3.36) were outstanding, Glasnow (left oblique sprain) started the season on the injured list and didn’t make his first start until May 27.
Springs (left elbow) was placed in the IL after going 2-0 with a 0.56 ERA in three April starts, and Rasmussen (right elbow) served well (4-2, 2.62 in eight starts) when he lost in May. Both will miss the rest of the year, meaning the Rays could be on the market for some help at the trade deadline.
McClanahan, an All-Star for the second consecutive season, spent 17 days in the IL due to mid-back tightness before returning to the rotation on July 17.
Eflin missed time in April with lower back strain, but that was all the Rays hoped for when the former Phillies pitcher signed a three-year, $40 million contract, the biggest free agent deal in Ray history.
“You always hate losing people and when people fall. … But at the end of the day, we’re focused on the game that’s coming up, today’s game,” Eflin said. “No one sits in a landfill or anything like that.”
Cash said that with a powerful roster that includes Diaz and fellow All-Stars Randy Arozarena and Vander Franco, it’s only a matter of time before the offense gets back on track.
The team’s skid comes after Cash benched Franco for two games due to the way the 22-year-old shortstop handled some sticky situations by not running hard on bases at times or being a good teammate.
While the offensive struggle is unlikely to be entirely up to Franco, the performance of the first All-Star Game at the plate has faded.
Before coming off the bench, the young star was hitting .287 with an .804 OPS and eight home runs in 72 games. Since returning to the lineup, he’s hit .207 with a .655 OPS and three homers in 24 games.
Arozarena has been falling lately as well, hitting .147 (5 of 34) with one homer, three RBIs and nine strikeouts in nine games since the All-Star break.
“We’d love to snap our fingers and get out of this, but we’re going to have to work,” Cash said.
Arozarena agreed through an interpreter.
“I feel good and I trust this team,” the outfielder said. “I think we are a really good team. … It’s a long season. We just have to keep going and fighting.”