Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 7/1/12
ST. PETERSBURG As strange as it might sound, perhaps the best thing that could happen to the free-falling Tampa Bay Rays right now is a series against the first-place New York Yankees. A head-to-head showdown with the AL East leaders at least offers the Rays a chance to make up lost ground and get their feet back on it. And on the bright side, they're catching the Yankees at a time when stellar lefthanders CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte are on sidelined with injuries. They've also got recent history on their side, having won seven straight home games against the Yankees their longest stretch ever against them. One thing's for sure, the Rays need something to change starting with a more productive offense when they host the New York for a three-game set starting tonight at 7:10 p.m., the team they swept to start the 2012 season at Tropicana Field. Seems like eons ago, in light of the just-completed series with Detroit, whose 5-3 victory Sunday at the Trop gave the Tigers three wins in four games against Tampa Bay. The only good news Sunday was the announcement that starting pitcher David Price (11-4) and reliever Fernando Rodney (22 saves in 23 opportunities) to the AL's All-Star team roster. So much else is going wrong for a Rays team that only 19 days ago lead the division by a half game over New York. Make it seven losses for Tampa Bay now in the past seven games and nine of its last 12, with a rapidly unraveling won-loss record of 41-38. That performance has knocked the Rays from the top tier of the East to near the bottom 7.5 games out of first place behind the Yankees (48-30), the furthest from the lead they've been this year. On the flip side, they now trail heated rival Boston (42-37) and are only a game ahead of last-place Toronto (40-39). Since their season-high mark of 19-8 on May 4, they've gone 22-30, including a 6-13 mark since their last day in first place. There's no question that the barrage of injuries have played a part in the team's woes first and foremost the ongoing absence of catalyst Evan Longoria, who still has no firm timetable for a return from his partially torn hamstring, along with the current loss of lefthander power-hitter Matt Joyce with a sore back sustained 10 days ago, the recent stretch without designated hitter Luke Scott (back), among other headaches. That said, the Rays have continued to underwhelm at the plate with many of the players they do have in the lineup. They've scored three runs or less in 10 of their last 15 games (losing eight of those 10). Equally alarming, they're batting only .201 (57-for-284) over the past nine games, with seven or fewer hits in eight of those outings. Another stat to make you wince: In the past seven games, they're hitting just .130 with runners in scoring position. That includes a 1-for-5 showing Sunday in game the Tigers chased Alex Cobb after five innings. After holding them in check with three scoreless innings, Cobb wound up scattering eight hits along with two walks and a hit batsman in dropping to 3-5. He's gone 1-5 with a 5.92 ERA since winning his first two starts of the season after replacing injured Jeff Niemann in the rotation. A fielding error by third baseman Brooks Conrad led to an unearned run in the fourth and extended Cobb in what might otherwise been a routine inning. And things went downhill for him from there. "He was okay he wasn't great; he wasn't awful," manager Joe Maddon said. "Again we made him throw more pitches in that one inning. He could have been out relatively easy and his pitch count would have been less then. Cobber wasn't bad. Again, when you don't score any runs everything is exaggerated regarding the negative side also. We can't hit through any of our mistakes right now. We're just not doing a good job with that." The Tigers got the timely hits throughout the series and hardly looked like a club languishing in the middle of the AL Central with a record of 39-40. They wound up taking the season series 5-2, with the only two Tampa Bay wins coming against ace Justin Verlander including Price's strong outing on Friday night. "We have to hit better," Maddon continued. "Overall, we played a little better defensively. To a certain extent we pitched pretty good. At some point, you just have to cover your mistakes just a little bit with your offense. We're all about pitching and defense but we've got to move the ball in situations and score some runs with a little more consistency." The Rays actually looked like they might change their luck Sunday. After squandering an early 1-0 lead in the first and falling behind 3-1 in the fifth, the tied the score with a two-run rally sparked by Ben Zobrist's double, a single by Hideki Matsui and another double by Jose Molina. But the Tigers came right back in the sixth with a double by Don Kelly, a Ramon Santiago sacrifice bunt, an RBI single by leadoff man Austin Jackson and a two-out RBI single by Prince Fielder. That, as it turned out against the Rays' anemic offense, was the ballgame. "They've gotten that two-out knock and that's the thing that's really eluded us, the two-out base hit," Maddon said. "That really garners the momentum you're looking for. That's really been a void for us and we've just got to get better. Normally, during the course of the season, that kind of cycles a little bit. We're definitely in line for a pretty good cycle, I hope." There are a few encouraging signs offensively. Zobrist has been a big contributor (in spite of a base-running gaffe that undercut a rally in the seventh, when he was thrown out trying to advance to third on a wild pitch). He went 2-for-4, breaking up a no-hitter in the fifth by Drew Smyly with his two-bagger and extending his hitting streak to eight games. During that stretch, he's hitting .481 (13-for-27) with three doubles, a homer and four RBI. Since June 1, when he was hitting below .200, Zobrist is on a .355 tear with 11 multi-hit games to raise his average to .256. Matsui also broke out of a funk Sunday with a pair of hits, getting his first RBI since June 20 just in time to face his old Yankee teammates. Rookie Matt Moore, who's career started last year with a bang against the Yankees on the road, will start Monday night against righthander Freddy Garcia (2-2, 6.39). Tuesday night, James Shields (7-5, 4.04) will face righty Ivan Nova (9-2, 4.03) and Wednesday at 3:10, Price will go toe-to-toe with another righty, David Phelps (1-3, 3.16). The Rays parlayed their head-to-head contests against the Yankees last September to vault into the post-season. Now the three-game series with New York could give Tampa Bay a chance to get a little mojo back with the All-Star break looming. "It's always good to play them," Maddon said. "I still keep my focus on the big picture. It's still early in the year. We have not been playing well as of late. We will play better. The Yankees coming into town They're banged up a little bit themselves with their pitching. Their team on the field is pretty much intact. But it'll be a great opportunity for us to make some headway."
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