These are strange days indeed for the Tampa Bay Rays.
On Saturday, one of their best hitters, Jeff Keppinger became the latestcasualty on a team reeling with injuries. He's out of action after being hit inhis right foot by a foul ball in the dugout.
On Sunday, Carlos Pena was racing to second base with two outs in the bottom ofthe eighth inning on what looked like a possible two-run, game-tying single byLuke Scott only to be struck in the foot by the screaming grounder.
Pena was instantly out on the interference call, ending the bases-loaded threatand the last scoring chance the Rays had against the Atlanta Braves in a 2-0loss. Of course, the way things have been going, perhaps the Rays should feelfortunate that Pena wasn't knocked out of action in the process along with thenine 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 playis that the Rays found a way to win one of the three games. They did so thanksto 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 injuredNiemann.
Niemann suffered a broken leg six days earlier in Toronto after being hit by aliner 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 relieverFranklin Morales. Rhymes passed out after taking first base, then when teamtrainers tried to test his wits by asking his name he instead displayed hiswit by jokingly telling them he was the Caped Crusader.
Rhymes dodged a bullet when X-Rays revealed there was no fracture, and returnedto the lineup Sunday after missing action Thursday and Friday with a nastycontusion. But now Keppinger, hitting .295 overall and .417 against lefties, ishobbled 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. Hequipped with reporters that he's "day to day" with a hamstringinjury, suffered when a dog chased him as he was taking out the garbageThursday night at his home in South Tampa.
Maddon noted that he won't be jogging onto the field for the time being. But ifthe Rays lose Keppinger's service for any extended time news on his statusshould come Monday it will be another difficult blow for a team that alreadyis playing without star third baseman Evan Longoria (partially torn hamstring)until at least late June and leadoff 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 Rayshave managed to keep their heads above water in the past eight games, postingan overall record of 5-3. That leaves them 25-17 and second in the AL East.
Though they didn't catch a break with the Pena interference Sunday, they didcatch one in the standings, since first place Baltimore (27-15) fell to Washington9-3, 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 againstthe Blue Jays, starting Monday at 7:10 p.m. ET. The Rays won both games last week on the roadagainst the Jays, and they'll try to keep that trend going with JeremyHellickson (4-0, 2.77 ERA) going up against right-hander Kyle Drabek (3-4,3.30).Hellickson is coming off a solid showing last week at theTrop, 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 ERAin 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 encouragedby how the rookie southpaw overcame a tough start, showing excellent commandand eventually retiring 13 of 14 batters in an eventual 5-3 loss. Moore talkedabout feeling relaxed and loose as the game went on, and that could bode well.
The series wraps up with a 1:10 p.m. ET contest on Wednesday with James Shields(6-2, 3.77) dueling tough lefty Ricky Romero (5-1, 3.64). Romero beat theRays 7-3 earlier this season at the Trop, though he was hardly dominating (sixinnings, eight hits, three walks and earned three runs). Meanwhile, Shields isanxious to put his last start, against the Braves in the series opener, behindhim.
Shields yielded seven hits, three walks and four earned runs in six innings. Heunraveled in the fifth inning after retiring the first two batters walkingMartin Prado, throwing errantly on an attempted pickoff and then serving up anRBI double to Freddie Freeman, which gave the Braves a 3-2 lead. Shields thenwalked Dan Uggla and yielded a run-scoring single to Brian McCann.
Then came Saturday, when Cobb did his share to secure the win after a wobblystart, 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 equaledthe longest start of his career and he just seemed to get stronger as the gamewore on, retiring the last 10 batters he faced. He also threw only 37 pitchesfrom the fifth through seventh innings, compared to 76 in the first four.That's an encouraging development for the Rays with Niemann sidelined.
Fernando Rodney notched his 100th career save, improving to a perfect 13-for-13in save opportunities this season. His ERA is 0.46 in 19 23 innings of work, ahuge contribution with last year's unofficial closer Kyle Farnsworth on the60-day DL with an elbow injury.
But Sunday ended on a sour note. It was the Rays' third loss in four gamesafter winning four in a row and their first shutout loss since Sept. 20,2011, at Yankee Stadium. David Price kept the team close, holding Atlanta tosix hits over seven innings while striking out seven. He's allowed two runs orless six times in nine starts this season, but received no run support for thefirst time in 2012.
"He was mixing up his pitches very well tonight and that was a big part ofhow we kept them off balance," Maddon said.
Sean Rodriguez contributed a stellar play at third, where he's helped plug thedefensive hole left by Longoria's absence. Diving to his right into foulterritory, Rodriguez gloved a smash by David Ross to start the fifth and thenone-hopped the throw to Pena, who made a nice scoop for the out. Sean-Rod is batting.306 since May 1 (19-for-62), the same day Longoria went on the DL. Rodriguezhas also hit safely in his last 15 starts, dating back to May 2.
Pena, on the other hand, continues to struggle. He's only had two hits in hislast 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 followshis hot start to the season (.286 with four homers and 13 RBI) in April. Hisslide has coincided largely with the loss of Longoria, who had providedvaluable protection to Pena in the lineup.
Pena sent one drive deep to center with the bases loaded in the sixth,momentarily giving Rays fans a jolt of excitement with a possible secondgame-winning Rays grand slam in two days.
But the shot fell short. In the end, the only Pena hit Sunday was the ball thatconnected with his foot in the bases-loaded eighth, effectively ending TampaBay's hopes for a comeback.
"The right thing to do there is to go on the swing, so as soon as thehitter has intent to swing, we're going," he said. "That's the way wedo 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'tgo 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.