February 3, 2023

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Rays' offense still searching for consistency

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ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays had no answers for the Yankees’ dominant starting pitching for a second straight night, leaving them with some familiar questions to answer about their inconsistent lineup.

Since putting together a five-run first inning in Wednesday’s 5-4 win over the Marlins, the Rays have scored only two runs in 25 innings. They were shut out for the second time this season on Friday, coming up empty against Yankees starter Jameson Taillon and reliever Clay Holmes in a 2-0 loss at Tropicana Field. Two games into a measuring-stick series against the American League East leaders, Tampa Bay has been held scoreless in 17 of 18 innings.

“It’s been good pitching,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Certainly all this stuff becomes a little more magnified when it comes kind of clumped together, and that’s kind of what we’re feeling.”

So once again, the Rays are searching for ways to get out of a team-wide rut and get their streaky lineup moving in the right direction. They’ve been here before, but they’ll have to get back on track in a hurry. The Yankees have extended their division lead to 6 1/2 games, the Rays’ largest divisional deficit since the end of the 2019 season, and they’re sending Gerrit Cole to the mound on Saturday afternoon.

“We’re streaky right now. Just the nature of the game sometimes, nature of this team,” center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “We’ve had quite a few guys in this room the last few years, and this is just kind of how it goes sometimes. There’s times where we score 10 runs three games in a row, and there’s times like this, where there wasn’t a whole lot of offense last night or tonight.”

Credit must be given to the Yankees’ starting pitchers, of course. Left-hander Nestor Cortes held the Rays to one run on four hits and a walk over eight-plus innings in Thursday’s series-opening 7-2 loss, and Taillon was even better on Friday. The big right-hander utilized his fastball at the top of the zone and didn’t give Tampa Bay much to work with as he permitted only two hits and struck out five without a walk over eight innings.

Combine high-level pitching with a lineup that can run hot and cold, and you’ll get nights like the last two.

“We’re working. I didn’t want to start the first two games off like this, but once again, they threw the ball really well,” Kiermaier said. “Sometimes you face a buzzsaw, and Cortes and Taillon were lights-out.”

On the whole, the Rays’ offensive numbers aren’t overly concerning. They’ve scored 191 runs, tied for fifth most in the AL. Their .684 OPS is ninth in the AL, right in the middle of the pack. But they’ve displayed some feast-or-famine tendencies.

Consider: In their last seven games before this series began, they averaged 5.86 runs per game; in the eight games before that stretch, they averaged only 2.38. They’ve scored three runs or fewer in 22 of their 45 games this season, with a 6-16 record in those games, and they’ve gone 20-3 when scoring at least four runs.

“We’ve got to find a way to get the offense going,” Cash said. “It’s not on one guy, not on two. It’s just a collective. Have some at-bats and see if we can get some momentum from that.”

If there were any silver linings from the Rays’ ninth loss in their past 17 games, they came in the form of outfielder Manuel Margot and starter Jeffrey Springs. Margot lined a leadoff double to left in the sixth inning, extending his hitting streak to a career-best 14 games; it’s the Rays’ longest hitting streak since Austin Meadows had a 16-gamer from Sept. 1-18, 2019, and five shy of matching Jason Bartlett’s franchise-record streak in 2009.

And Springs continued to pitch well in his fourth outing since officially joining the Rays’ rotation, working a career-high six innings for his first quality start since he was a 24-year-old Rangers prospect in High-A ball five years ago.

“Anytime I can go six and give us a chance to win, I’m pretty happy with it,” Springs said.

The lefty limited the Yankees to two runs on a pair of fourth-inning homers, with the blasts by Gleyber Torres and Matt Carpenter coming on fastballs located at or above the top of the strike zone. Even those pitches weren’t poorly located, Springs said. The other three hits he scattered were all singles, and he struck out six without walking a batter.

Since moving out of the bullpen and becoming part of the starting staff, Springs has put together a 2.21 ERA with 19 strikeouts and four walks in 20 1/3 innings.

“I thought he was very, very good,” Cash said. “Everything that he’s done, big picture, has been very encouraging.”

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