Things just aren't syncing up for the Rays these past couple of weeks. When the offense is hitting - like on Friday night - the pitching lets 14 runs score. And when their pitching holds the other team within reach - like last night - the offense goes one for eight with runners in scoring position and leaves eight men on base. Talk about some disappointing luck.
Then again, it's not like Jeff Niemann lit the world on fire last night. In fact, last night was one of Niemann's worst games of the season, letting up five runs, nine hits, and three walks in six innings while only striking out four. The home run ball did him in last night with three of those five runs coming from two home runs hit in the sixth inning, turning an otherwise solid performance into a below-average one. Niemann did get squeezed a little by the ump last night, but he also made some bad pitches - in particular, hanging a slider to Cantu and grooved a fastball to Helms, both of which ended up as home runs.
One thing that I find interesting is that Niemann hasn't begun using his cutter consistently yet. After using a cutter to roll over the White Sox a week ago, Niemann didn't use the pitch last night at all - that is, unless I'm missing something from the Pitch F/x data. Instead, Niemann's used a splitter more often, and he even generated some swinging strikes with it. Is Niemann messing around with his repitoire, trying to find the pitches he feels most comfotable with? Or is he changing what he's throwing on a game-by-game basis based upon the strengths of the other team? I don't know, but I find it fascinating to guess.
Okay...trivia time now. Who's been the Rays' top offensive player over the past two weeks, as measured by Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA)? The answer may surprise you...If you guessed Sean Rodriguez above, ding ding ding, we have a winner! Rodriguez has been blistering hot of late, putting together a .386/.400/.682 line over the past 14 days, good for a 1.082 OPS and a .466 wOBA. Last night, Rodriguez continued his hot hitting, going three for three with a double, two stolen bases, and a walk. That extends his hitting streak to 14 games and brings his season slash line up to .288/.328/.472 - an .800 OPS. A month ago, many of us were willing to demote him to make room for Kelly Shoppach or Matt Joyce, but it doesn't look like he'll be going anywhere soon now.
If you check out a mainstream sports news source today, be prepared to be bombarded with people discussing the Yankees catching the Rays. I'm sure many reporters are going to try and make a hullabaloo about it, but really, it's still early June and the Yankees have a very easy schedule right now. It sucks losing the lead, but quotes like this make me feel in safe hands:
"You can't expect to have a four- or five-game lead all year," B.J. Upton said. "We knew it was coming. We knew this was tough baseball. We're not worried about it. We can't worry about them being tied with us or behind us or ahead of us. We just have to go out and do what we've been doing all year. And if we end up doing that, we'll end up exactly where we want to be."
The Rays need to end their skid and they need to end it soon, but pressing and getting aggravated at themselves isn't going to help. This team is too good to keep playing this poorly; things will swing back around again, but the question is, "When?"