Coming off last weekend's cross-state sweep of the Miami Marlins, the Tampa Bay Rays sat in 1st place in the AL East and appeared to be in a strong position, as they came home to welcome the New York Mets for a rare visit to Tropicana Field.
Unfortunately, the surging Mets made themselves a little too comfortable. The Rays dropped all 3 games in convincing fashion and yielded the division's top spot in the process. Though numerous losses will occur in the course of a 162 game season, these defeats were particularly negative.
As the team again squares off against the Marlins, fans rightfully wonder if the after-effects of the Mets' series will continue to haunt.
Tampa Bay lost the 3 contests to New York by an embarrassing 29-9 combined score and never came close to victory in any of the games. Even more significantly, 20 of those earned runs were yielded by starting pitchers David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, and Alex Cobb.
These normally reliable hurlers made the middle-of-the-pack lineup look like Murderer's Row. This is not to suggest the Mets are not a dangerous team. However, their lineup is devoid of home run power and the young team tends to play small ball, in hopes of winning through solid pitching.
Making the losses more bitter, the Mets pitchers looked equally effective as their offensive teammates. Though the club scratched 4 runs from veteran All-Star Johan Santana in the final contest, the series began with Chris Young earning his first victory in over a year and soft-tossing knuckleballer R.A. Dickey throwing a 1 hit complete game.
Are the Rays offensive woes becoming too significant for their pitching to overcome?
Though the return of Desmond Jennings was a welcomed addition to the lineup, the club still yearns for the big bat of 3rd baseman Evan Longoria, who remains sidelined with a torn hamstring. Too many spots in the order, including catcher and at least half the infield, have become near-automatic outs on any given night.
Furthermore, after embarking on a positive start on his return to the Sunshine State, 1st baseman Carlos Pena is consistently failing to make contact. Manager Joe Maddon continues to experiment with his spot in the order, but the slugger is still batting an anemic .188. The Rays' lineup is not potent enough to overcome such reduced production from this many positions.
While the Mets were delivering a painful broom to Tropicana Field, the New York Yankees swept a series of their own against the Atlanta Braves. The wins added up to victories in 9 of their last 10 games and propelled the AL East rival into sole possession of 1st place. With improved pitching and an ever dangerous lineup, it could take considerable effort to seize the lead from the Yanks.
Adding to the misery, the Baltimore Orioles used the occasion to capture a trio of match-ups from the Pittsburgh Pirates. The upstart O's continue to surprise and have won 7 of 10. They sit only a 1/2 game back of New York and are 2 better than the Rays, who have fallen into 3rd place.
While a weekend series against Miami is always important, it now further becomes a "line in the sand" occasion. With prospects of Longoria and utilityman Jeff Keppinger returning from injuries, there is some hope for improving these offensive struggles.
In the interim, however, Tampa Bay needs to avoid accumulating too big of a deficit, which would eradicate the many positives from the season's first 2 months. Rookie Matt Moore can get the squad back on track, as he takes the hill for the start on Friday, June 15, against Carlos Zambrano.
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