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Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Rays Beat: There’s still optimism, but is it realistic?

— It wasn’t all that long ago when the Rays were one of the elite teams in the major leagues, the class of the AL East and a sure bet to not only reach the postseason but also play deep into October.

“Eat last.” Remember that?

Hope sure did spring eternal down in Port Charlotte.

And it still does inside Joe Maddon’s office, where the manager insists on a nightly basis that his team will make the playoffs.

“I still believe there’s a really good finish to the season for us,” Maddon said the day the losing streak reached 10.

Sure, but for now the Rays sit somewhere between crash and burn, looking up at the Astros and battling the Cubs for the worst record in the major leagues.

A 10-game losing streak can really throw a wrench into the plans.

So how did it comes to this?

A couple of theories and one real answer.

Let’s begin with the theories.

♦ It’s their turn.

The wheels came off the Red Sox in 2012. The Orioles couldn’t follow up their playoff run that same summer. The Yankees missed the postseason last year. The Blue Jays never live up to expectations.

So, maybe it is the Rays’ turn to bring up the rear. Simple as that.

♦ Lack of mojo.

The back-to-back-to-back walk-off wins during the last homestand aside, this team seems to lack the magic that surrounded Rays teams in the past. On that last road trip alone, they lost one game on a walk-off throwing error while trying to field a bunt, lost on a walk-off triple that sent Wil Myers to the disabled list with a fractured thumb and lost a game 1-0 when the winning run scored on a bases-loaded walk.

♦ The injuries.

This team is built around the starting pitching, and having three of the big five on the shelf for an extended period of time will tax the rest of the rotation.

While those involved say no, it is not a stretch to think the hitters feel the burden of having to pick up the slack and are putting too much pressure on themselves.

And that leads to the answer.

♦ The hitting

Where has it gone?

The Rays didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard in April, but they did hit the ball. A lot of times, they hit the ball hard, but right at someone. Tough luck, they said. Things will even out, they said.

Then came May, and the offense went south.

Nearly every regular in the lineup saw his production drop from what it had been in April: Evan Longoria from .286 average/.342 on-base percentage in April to .237/.304 in May; Matt Joyce from .328/.438 to .218/.293; Ben Zobrist from .302/.390 to .161/.250; James Loney from .301/.372 to .284/.333; Desmond Jennings from .279/.382 to .198/.274 and Myers from .245/.321 to .210/.304.

Only Yunel Escobar perked up in May, going from .219/.279 the first month to .290/.374 the second month. David DeJesus came alive in May, going from .193/.311 to .325/.378.

The Rays scored three or fewer runs 19 times in May.

So, where do they go from here?

Dismantle the team and go with the kids? Executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said no. He put together a team filled with players under team control for the next few years because he thinks the team can be competitive for the next few years.

“We have really good players that are going to have really good years,” Friedman said. “It just hasn’t synced up so far this year. Everything that I know about the game and everything that we’ve done in looking at things suggests that we’re going to be significantly better. So I believe in that.”

Friedman is just as surprised as everyone else at where his club sits today.

“You can go back and go through some of the losses, and there’s just a lot of peculiar things that have kind of added up, but they’ve happened. We’re where we are,” Friedman said. “If we didn’t believe in the talent that we had here, it would be a totally different mindset. But nothing that has transpired fundamentally changes the way we view the individual players or the collection of guys as a whole.”

Maybe David Price gets traded this summer for an armful of high-end prospects to hasten the recovery for the coming years. Or maybe Maddon’s prophecy comes true.

But first the Rays have to get back to .500, and that will take a Herculean effort.

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