Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 5/20/12
These are strange days indeed for the Tampa Bay Rays. On Saturday, one of their best hitters, Jeff Keppinger became the latest casualty on a team reeling with injuries. He's out of action after being hit in his right foot by a foul ball in the dugout. And on Sunday, Carlos Pena was racing to second base with two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning on what looked like a possible two-run, game-tying single by Luke Scott only to be struck in the foot by the screaming grounder. Pena was instantly out due to fluke interference call, ending the bases-loaded threat and the last scoring chance the Rays had against the Atlanta Braves in a 2-0 loss. Of course, the way things have been going, perhaps the Rays should feel fortunate that Pena wasn't knocked out of action in the process along with the nine other Tampa Bay players who've wound up on the disabled list. What in the name of Jeff Niemann is going on here? The only positive news from the weekend series that commenced interleague play is that the Rays found a way to win one of the three games. They did so thanks to Matt Joyce's third career grand slam on Saturday, wiping out a 2-0 deficit, and the fine 2012 debut of Durham call-up Alex Cobb in place of injured Niemann. If you're keeping track, Niemann suffered a broken leg six days earlier in Toronto after being hit by a liner off a pitch in the second inning and will be out four-to-six weeks. Two nights later, there was the now-famous "Batman" injury caper, when Will Rhymes was nailed in the forearm by a pitch thrown by Boston reliever Franklin Morales. He passed out after taking first base, then when team trainers tried to test his wits by asking his name he instead displayed his wit by jokingly telling them he was the Caped Crusader. Rhymes dodged a bullet when X-Rays revealed there was no fracture, and returned to the lineup Sunday after missing action Thursday and Friday with a nasty contusion. But now Keppinger hitting .295 overall and .417 against lefties is hobbled with a protective boot over one foot, with his status uncertain. Heck, even manager Joe Maddon isn't immune to the wave of health setbacks. He quipped with reporters that he's "day to day" with a hamstring injury, suffered when a dog chased him as he was taking out the garbage Thursday night at his home in South Tampa. Maddon noted that he won't be jogging onto the field for the time being. But if the Rays lose Keppinger's service for any extended time and news on his status should come Monday that will be another difficult blow for a team that already is playing without star third baseman Evan Longoria (partially torn hamstring) until at least in late June and lead-off hitter and left-fielder Desmond Jennings (eligible to come off the DL from his sprained knee next Sunday in Boston). In spite of dropping two of three games to a talented Braves team, the Rays have managed to keep their heads above water in the past eight games, posting an overall record of 5-3. That leaves them with a record of 25-17 and second in the AL East. And though they didn't catch a break with the Pena interference Sunday, they did catch one in the standings, since first place Baltimore (27-15) fell to Washington 9-3, third-place Toronto (23-19) lost to the Mets 6-5 and fourth-place New York (21-20) dropped a 5-2 decision to Cincinnati. Tampa Bay will be put to the test next with a three-game home series against the Blue Jays, starting tonight at 7:10 p.m. The Rays won both games last week on the road against the Jays, and they'll try to keep that trend going this evening with Jeremy Hellickson (4-0, 2.77 ERA) going up against righthander Kyle Drabek (3-4, 3.30). Hellickson is coming off a solid showing Wednesday at the Trop, when he scattered five hits over six innings and helped beat Boston 2-1. He's also been very effective at home, compiling a mark of 3-0 with a 1.44 ERA in five starts this season. On Tuesday, Matt Moore (1-4, 5.20) faces off against right Drew Hutchison (3-1, 4.81), Moore lost a decision Thursday to the Red Sox but Maddon was encouraged by how the rookie southpaw overcame a tough start, showing excellent command and eventually retiring 13 of 14 batters in an eventual 5-3 loss. Moore talked about feeling relaxed and loose as the game went on, and that could bode well. The series wraps up with a 1:10 p.m. contest Wednesday with James Shields (6-2, 3.77) dueling tough lefthander Ricky Romero (5-1, 3.64). Romero beat the Rays 7-3 earlier this season at the Trop, though he was hardly dominating (six innings, eight hits, three walks and earned three runs allowed). Meanwhile, Shields is anxious to put his last start Friday against the Braves in the series opener behind him. Shields allowed seven hits, three walks and four earned runs in six innings pitched. He unraveled in the fifth inning after retiring the first two batters walking Martin Prado, throwing errantly on an attempted pickoff and then serving up an RBI double to Freddie Freeman, and putting the Braves ahead 3-2. Shields followed with a walk to Dan Uggla and a single to Brian McCann, allowing Atlanta to take a 4-2 lead en route to a 5-3 win. Then came Saturday, when Cobb did his share to secure the win after a wobbly start, falling behind 2-0 in the second. He wound up going seven innings, allowing seven hits, two walks and just the two runs. The seven innings equaled the longest start of his career and he just seemed to get stronger as the game wore on, retiring the last 10 batters he faced. He also threw only 37 pitches from the fifth through seventh innings, compared to 76 in the first four. That's an encouraging development for the Rays with Niemann sidelined. For the record, Fernando Rodney notched his 100th career save, improving to a perfect 13-for-13 in save opportunities this year. His ERA is now 0.46 in 19.2 innings of work, a huge contribution with last year's unofficial closer Kyle Farnsworth still on the 60-day DL with an elbow injury. But Sunday ended on a sour note. It was the Rays' third loss in four games after winning four in a row (and their first shutout loss since last Sept 20 at Yankee Stadium. ). David Price kept the team close, holding Atlanta to six hits over seven innings while striking out seven. He's allowed two runs or less six times in nine starts this season, but received no runs of support for the first time in 2012. "He was mixing up his pitches very well tonight and that was a big part of how we kept them off balance," Maddon said. Sean Rodriguez contributed a stellar play at third, where he's helped plug the defensive hole left by Longoria's absence. Diving to his right into foul territory, Rodriguez gloved a smash by David Ross to start the fifth and then one-hopped the throw to Carlos Pena, who made a nice scoop for the out. Sean-Rod is now batting .306 since May 1 (19-for-62), the same day Longoria went on the DL. He's also hit safely in his last 15 starts, dating back to May 2. Pena, on the other hand, continues to struggle. He's had only two hits in his last 27 at bats with runners in scoring position and is hitting .121 (8-for-66) with one homer and five RBI in 19 games this month .213 overall. That follows his hot start to the season (.286 with four homers and 13 RBI) in April. His slide has coincided largely with the loss of Longoria, who had provided valuable protection to Pena in the lineup. He sent one drive deep to center with the bases loaded in the sixth, momentarily giving Rays fans a jolt of excitement with a possible second game-winning Rays grand slam in two days. But the shot fell short. And in the end, the only Pena hit Sunday was the ball that connected with his foot in the bases-loaded eighth, effectively ending Tampa Bay's hopes for a comeback. "The right thing to do there is to go on the swing, so as soon as the hitter has intent to swing, we're going," he told reporters. "That's the way we do it over here and the way we should run the bases. That caught me in mid-stride. I haven't seen the video but it's just a helpless feeling because I couldn't go anywhere; I think I was in the air when the ball hit me. It was a rocket. It's just bad luck." And another strange twist for a team that continues to experience its share.
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