There's no doubt about it, I'm afraid. The Rays are struggling right now. We are right in the middle of a serious mid-season malaise.
The main reason behind it is obvious for all to see. We can't hit. Our bats are asleep. The biggest culprits (if thats the right word) are Carl Crawford, BJ Upton and Carlos Pena, but with the exception of perhaps Evan Longoria (who homered in three straight games over the weekend), no-one has exactly been shining recently.
So don't think that the irony of optioning Ben Zobrist back to Durham has been lost. I'm a big fan of Zobrist, and while he's never going to be a star, his contributions over the last couple of weeks have been important - as demonstrated again last night as he homered to put the Rays ahead, and then added an RBI-single that provided what turned out to be the winning run. Of course having provided that rare burst of Rays-offense, he was then asked to pack up his things and head back to Triple-A. Thanks Ben, I'm sure we will see you back in St Pete before too long.
While it is a shame to see Zobrist leaving, it does mean that Jason Bartlett is back, and not a moment too soon. I had been commenting on the 'spark-plug' qualities that Bartlett brings just before he got injured, and the lack of that has been all-too evindent over our recent struggles. I am certain that it is no coincidence that our season-high losing streak happened when we were without Bartlett. He may not exactly be a huge hitting threat, but on the basepaths, and in the field he has been the absolute stand-out of the season so far.
The encouraging sign though, through the course of this slump, is that we have actually managed to grind out the wins. Despite harldy being able to hit anything, we have won four of six, and both series since the All-Star break, and are still a half-game ahead of the Red Sox.
After winning the first two against Toronto, we lost the finale against the first of four consecutive left-handeders who would start against us. We have struggled hugely against the southpaws, so it was nice that we managed to win the opener against Oakland on Monday. That W came almost entirely courtesy of Scott Kazmir, who was outstanding, throwing 7 innings of 2-hit shutout ball. If he can carry on with that form for the rest of the year, then we will be laughing.
We then put together a very meek performance with the bat on Tuesday, only getting one run (on a sacrifice fly), and going down heavily. Andy Sonnanstine pitched fairly well, but things got a little bit away from him in one inning, and then the bullpen allowed the score to become a little more lopsided late on.
The wrap-up for the homestand yesterday saw James Shields at his best. He actually gave up back-to-back homeruns in the second, but got right back on it from there on in, pitching into the ninth for his ninth win of the year. As well as the contribution from Zobrist, Jonny Gomes got the important hit, belting a two-run shot off one of the catwalks to tie the game. Jonny clearly enjoyed the run of leftys that we faced - getting a few consecutive starts is massive for his confidence, and he showed why - going 3-8 with three walks and the aforementioned homer. He's still only hitting .197 on the year (though with eight homeruns and a .310 OBP), which is below what the team (and Jonny himself, I'm sure) would expect. With the trade deadline approaching, the two big possibilities for deals appear to be getting bullpen help, and a right-handed bat to play rightfield. I think that everybody around the Rays would love that right-handed bat to be Jonny's, but he might just be running out of time to show that he can contribute successfully in a part-time role. I really hope not, because he is a great player to have around, but I guess when you're in a tight race, you need contributions from everyone on the field, as well as off of it.
Personally, and despite the overwhelming success of our 'pen so far this year, I feel that an extra arm could be vital down the stretch run. We've got Perci back now (he got the save last night), and frankly I'm fairly happy having him in the closer role. And JP Howell, Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour are not really showing any signs of slowing down. But beyond that, with Al Reyes, Gary Glover (on the DL at the moment), Jason Hammel, and, most concerningly Trever Miller, things don't appear quite so sure-footed as earlier in the year. Miller in particular has struggled massively since the break - in three appearances he has recorded only one out, and walked six. I'm sure he'll get it back, but its worrying none-the-less. I'm also fine with Hammel in the long-relief role, but I'm not totally convinced whether he could cope well if he had to be moved up into more pressurised situations.
Then there are Reyes and Glover. Workhorses both, and experienced with it, but Reyes is, I fear, past his best, while Glover's best isn't that high anyway. Don't get me wrong, its not like I go and hide behind the sofa when they come in to pitch, but there definitely exists the possibility of an upgrade.
And I think that an uprgrade there would, over the rest of the season, pay the most dividends. The St Pete Times makes a telling point today in discussing our problems against leftys - its all very well looking for a platoon rightfielder (Jason Bay, Xavier Nady and Casey Blake are the most oft-mentioned names), but in addition to the limited number of times that we will face leftys over the rest of the season, they point out that Carl Crawford, BJ Upton and Carlos Pena are hitting just .233, .262 and .204 respectively off left-handed pitching. Even with the best right-handed bat available, if those numbers aren't improved then we're going to continue to struggle.
An extra arm, on the other hand, would not only take some of the pressure away from Perci, JP, Wheeler and Balfour, but could be a consistant difference maker late on in tight games. And I think that in the last two months of the season there are going to be a lot more tight games than there are games against left-handers.
Anyway, its going to be an interesting week for Andrew Friedman. And I for one am looking forward to seeing what he will make of it.