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Rays searching for that elusive string of victories

By Roger Mooney
Published: May 20, 2014 Updated: May 20, 2014 at 09:13 AM
Kevin Kiermaier, center, celebrates after he hits a two-run home run Sunday against the Angels. Joe Maddon is confident a hot streak is coming as the club tries to escape the AL East cellar.

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays are 45 games into the season and one pattern has emerged: When they pitch well, they usually win. When they don’t, they look like they did in Sunday’s loss to the Los Angeles Angels. Rarely is there a middle ground.

“We haven’t played our best baseball,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We’re missing a few key people. It’s a matter of getting well, keeping everybody on the same page. Once we start hitting, I’ll have a better idea of what we got going on.”

Pitching and defense are the foundations to the team, but the pitching was rocked by injuries to Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb, a series of misfortunes that turned the rotation upside down.

The defense can be leaky and has turned in a pair of four-error games.

The offense? It’s not scaring anyone, especially now that second baseman Ben Zobrist (dislocated left thumb) is on the shelf.

The Rays open a six-game homestand tonight against the AL West-leading Oakland A’s. The Boston Red Sox are in for a three-game weekend series. The Red Sox have lost their past four and sit only two games ahead of the Rays, who occupy the AL East basement.

The string of wins that Maddon keeps talking about has yet to arrive. The big wins, the ones the players see as momentum-turners, are often followed by clunkers.

“I think right now we’re a little too focused on trying to make it happen and not just letting it happen,” Evan Longoria said. “I don’t know what it is. I wish I had the answer.”

Start with the rotation. Hellickson (right elbow surgery) hasn’t pitched all season. Moore (left elbow surgery) hasn’t pitched since April 7 and is out for the year. Cobb (left oblique strain) hasn’t pitched since April 12.

The Rays are 14-5 when the starter pitches at least six innings. They are 5-12 when he does not.

That’s where some offense can come in handy.

“We just have not been able to string together the good at-bats where we can actually absorb a bad pitching performance,” Maddon said.

Cobb will rejoin the rotation this week, and the Rays are hoping that provides a much-needed lift.

The Rays were 7-5 after Cobb outpitched the Reds in Cincinnati that afternoon. They are 19-26 today and five games behind the division-leading New York Yankees.

“You probably go to any team in the big leagues right now, they’ve been through quite a bit of the same stuff we’ve been through,” David Price said. “You just kind of have to weather the storm, and I think we’ve done a pretty decent job of that. We could have played better baseball. We could have played worse baseball. We’ve had our fair share of ups and downs and we’re still in the mix.”

Sean Rodriguez said nothing has changed around the team aside from the scent in the dugout brought about by the players wearing some of the cologne or aftershave (Old Spice, Brut, Aqua Velva Blue Ice) that Maddon introduced to the clubhouse during the road trip. Some players come in early for extra work. Others remain after games to iron out the hole in their swing.

“It’s a cliché, but you got to be battled tested,” Rodriguez said. “You want to win the World Series, you got to go through things like this. You ask any championship team in any sport and I guarantee there was something wacky or weird about the season, things they experienced. There’s got to be a bunch of things that make a great story.”

The Rays will get Cobb back this week and Hellickson late next month. Zobrist isn’t expected to miss more than three weeks, so he will be back in early June.

The Rays will know today if Ryan Hanigan will head to the disabled list with a hamstring injury, so the optimism of having a frontline starter return could be dulled by losing the frontline catcher.

“When the band gets back together,” Maddon said, “we’ll see what happens.”

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