Jeremy Hellickson Struggles, Bullpen Falters, and Rays Lose To Athletics 7-5

OAKLAND, CA - JULY 25: Jeremy Hellickson #58 of the Tampa Bay Rays looks on as Cliff Pennington #2 of the Oakland Athletics rounds the bases after hitting a two-run home run at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum on July 25, 2011 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

Talk about interminable. I thought that game would never end. Whenever you're in the 7th inning at the three hour mark -- and your team is in the process of blowing the lead -- it's not going to be a fun night.

The Rays have been a struggling team for the past few weeks, just sneaking out enough wins here and there to keep it from looking like they're in a huge slide. They had the excuse for a while that they were facing the Yankees and Red Sox, but four games into their road trip, it's becoming pretty evident that their problems are deeper seated than that. The Rays are now 1-3 over their last four games, losing a series to the Royals and blowing the lead last night against the Athletics. What can go wrong has gone wrong -- they're just in one of those funks.

Jeremy Hellickson had one of his roughest starts of the season last night, struggling to last through five innings while allowing four hits, four walks, and three runs. Brooks Baseball isn't letting me access the game at the moment (so I don't have Pitch F/x data to share), but it's pretty obvious what his issue was last night: Helly simply didn't have his normal control. He was missing his spots, falling behind on hitters, and working deep into counts all night long; it was a very un-Helly like performance.

And yet, Hellickson battled and made it through five innings. He doesn't have a David Price fastball to lean on when his command fails him, so I'm always impressed with his tenacity when he doesn't have his best stuff. Even when his control is off, he doesn't seem willing to throw pitches down the heart of the plate in order to keep from falling behind on hitters; he may walk four batters, but he'll keep trying to hit the edges and his spots.

When Hellickson left, the Rays were leading the game 4-2 thanks to Ben Zobrist, Desmond Jennings, and a weird series of events in the top of the fifth inning (including a triple from B.J. Upton). But then the seventh inning happened.

The score was 5-3 going into the bottom of the seventh inning, as Kelly Shoppach hit a towering homerun in the sixth and the Athletics scored a run off Brandon Gomes. J.P. Howell entered the game to get the final out in the sixth, and Maddon had him start off the seventh inning. Unfortunately, something still isn't right with Howell: he got one quick out before allowing a single, walk, and another single. One run scored, and then Joel Peralta came in and allowed those two inherited runners to score on a double by Conor Jackson. And just like that, the Athletics had the lead and ended up winning the game.

There's so much you can blame right now. The bullpen is starting to show cracks, regressing hard after posting an unsustainably low ERA in the beginning of year. And the offense continues to struggle, going 8-53 with runners in scoring position over this road trip (h/t Transplanted). Take your pick really -- it's been a rough couple of days.

The one person I wouldn't blame: Desmond Jennings. He continues to be nothing short of phenomenal, going 2-5 last night with a double and stolen base. That's three doubles for him already, tying Reid Brignac's total number of extra base hits this season.

Oh, and that Ben Zobrist guy is pretty nifty. He went 3-4 with a walk and homerun -- not a bad day from Zorilla.

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