Tampa Bay Rays
Rays seeking ways to slam the door
It happened twice in Chicago and twice in Kansas City.
It happened when Roberto Hernandez allowed a career-high three home runs to the White Sox and Alex Cobb couldn't get that last out in the sixth inning against the Royals.
It happened to Jeremy Hellickson when he took the mound in the bottom of the first at U.S. Cellular Field with a 1-0 lead and again when he was breezing through the night at Kauffman Stadium staked to leads of 5-0 and 6-1.
What happened was, the Rays lost.
The team that traditionally holds on to leads the way Linus holds on to his blanket has been uncharacteristically charitable through the early going this season. The Rays have led in 10 of their 15 losses.
“Right now it's not really happening for us,” David Price said. “I feel like we've been at the end of a lot of unlucky stuff. Weak contact becomes hits. We're making really, really good pitches that get hit.”
There is not exactly widespread panic in the Rays clubhouse, but there is concern.
“We just can't keep doing this. We've given up way too many leads this year,” manager Joe Maddon said May 1 after the meltdown in Kansas City, when the Royals chipped away at Hellickson and rallied from a 5-0 deficit in the middle of the fourth inning on the way to a 9-8 victory.
The Rays held a lead in 67 percent of their losses before Saturday night's game against the Rockies at Coors Field.
Last year, the rotation and bullpen that turned in historic numbers couldn't hold a lead in 47 percent of the team's losses.
That number was down to 37 percent in 2011, the fewest leads-turned-into-losses since the 2008 season.
Do the Rays miss James Shields this much?
“It's just unusual,” Maddon said. “It just might be serendipity. All of a sudden it happens. These guys are good. (With) these guys it's not going to happen on a consistent basis. It's part of what we're going through right now, and how we channel it, how we process it, how we deal with it is going to make the difference between whether it sustains itself for a long period of time or goes away. For me, it's happened and we move on.”
Price said the numbers can be misleading. Not being able to hold on to a 1-0, first-inning lead on the road is hardly a criminal offense for a major-league pitcher. But, Price added, being able to hold on to that 1-0, first-inning lead on the road is kind of a requirement of a major-league pitcher.
“Whenever your team scores, you got to put up a zero after that, try to keep the momentum on your side, let your teammates feel you're still in command of the game,” Price said.
Cobb's loss in Kansas City can be written off as one of those nights for a young pitcher. He cruised into the sixth inning with a 2-0 lead and got the first two outs before things unraveled in a hurry. The Royals scored four runs in the span of nine pitches.
You can place some blame that night on the Rays offense, which led 2-0 against Shields two batters into the game and had runners on second and third with one out but couldn't expand the lead.
But the offense came through the following night, scoring two runs for Hellickson in the first inning, two more in the second and another in the third. After Hellickson allowed the Royals a run in the bottom of the third, Luke Scott homered to restore the five-run lead.
The Royals viewed the comeback as a magical night in what they hope is a magical season, much like the 2008 Rays viewed all those walk-off wins that summer.
But Hellickson looks at the night as a terrible job on his part.
“If we're up 6-0 after the sixth, it takes the life out of an offense,” he said. “They have to score that many runs in three innings. Instead, I let them get one in the third, one in the fourth, they're chipping away. I got to shut the door a little earlier.”
The fact the Rays have been able to shut that door over the last five years makes this early season slump so startling. With the offense day-to-day at best, the Rays certainly cannot afford to have their pitching — the unquestioned backbone of the team — go south on them.
“It's frustrating,” Hellickson said. “We're trying our best, but it's one of those things. We definitely can't keep this up. We have to start shutting the door when we get the chance.”