Here are just a few things that have gone wrong for the Tampa Bay Rays this season:
1. Preseason MVP candidate Evan Longoria missed 86 games with a slow-healing hamstring pull.
2. Carlos Pena and Luke Scott, signed in the offseason to provide power in the middle of the order, have combined for 27 home runs but a .207 batting average and an on-base percentage barely above .300.
3. James Shields, third in the Cy Young voting in 2011, had a 4.52 ERA through July 26 and was rumored to be on the trading block.
4. The team's fabled defense has already committed more errors than in all of 2011, when it made the fewest in the majors.
5. Matt Moore, the heavy preseason Rookie of the Year favorite based on his superlative playoff start last October, won just one of his first 10 starts and had an ERA hovering around 5.00.
6. B.J. Upton has a .299 on-base percentage.
7. Desmond Jennings has a .303 on-base percentage.
8. Kyle Farnsworth, last year's closer, has pitched 11.2 innings.
9. Desperate for offense at one point, they signed Hideki Matsui. He hit .147.
But here they are, the annoying little brother. The canker sore of the AL East. The itch between your toes. They just don't go away. And as the Boston Red Sox learned a year ago: Watch out.
The Rays completed a sweep of the Blue Jays on Thursday behind Moore, who allowed two hits and one run in six innings. The Rays have won eight of their past 11 games behind a dominant stretch of pitching: They've allowed just 14 runs while holding opponents to a .165 average. Thursday's game was the third in four games the Rays limited the other team to three hits.
"Our staff and our entire lineup right now, we're playing well," Moore said. "It's a very good time for us in this clubhouse, and there's a lot of looking forward to going on the road right now."
After struggling with fastball command early in the season, Moore has started establishing himself as a dominant presence of late. In his first 12 starts, he allowed 11 home runs, but in 10 starts since June 15, he's allowed just two (both in the same game) and has lowered his ERA to 3.73. He's allowed just five runs over his past five starts.
"Obviously, I'm extremely pleased with where I've come from the beginning of the season," Moore said. "After not putting together too many quality starts, now I'm getting a little more hungry for the eighth or ninth inning, just to see what those are like."
Shields has also looked like the Shields of a year ago in his past two outings. After a miserable seven-start stretch from late June through late July in which he allowed 32 runs, Shields threw a 98-pitch complete game with 11 strikeouts to shut out the A's on July 31 and then allowed two hits in eight innings against the Jays earlier in this series. Shields' outing against Oakland was just the ninth since 2000 in which the starter went nine innings and registered at least 10 strikeouts while throwing fewer than 100 pitches.
Oh, yes, there's also this guy named David Price who's pretty good.
As always, offense is the big question for Tampa Bay. Even during this 11-game stretch, the Rays are hitting just .225 with 36 runs scored and five home runs. Longoria should help an offense that ranks 13th in the American League in runs scored, but a big key will be Joe Maddon's constant tinkering to find the best matchups on any given day. Once Longoria can return to playing third base every day -- he was the DH on Thursday -- that will help Maddon's flexibility even more as it frees up Ben Zobrist as a potential outfield option, with Jeff Keppinger or Ryan Roberts at second base. Zobrist actually started at shortstop on Thursday, his first appearance there since 2009. Maddon has also been extraordinarily patient with Carlos Pena, but he has to consider benching him against lefties, against whom Pena is batting just .163/.278/.318.
No matter the matchups, this lineup isn't likely to start averaging five runs a game, so it's up to the rotation and crooked-hat closer Fernando Rodney (34-for-35 in saves) to keep firing non-crooked numbers on the scoreboard. The Rays don't play any AL East rivals again until Aug. 30, but they do have series against fellow wild-card contenders Oakland and the Los Angeles Angels. The September schedule includes home-and-home showdowns with the Yankees, Red Sox and Orioles.
Who knows, maybe that final series at home against Baltimore will be with a playoff berth on the line.
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