How does a team overcome the loss of its best offensive weapon, its cleanup hitter, a slew of poor offensive performances, and a 1-8 record to start a season? The answer is solid starting pitching and effective relief pitching. Over the last three seasons the Rays way has always included strong starting pitching and relief pitching, but in 2011 the Rays will demand even more from their staff as they wait for the return of Evan Longoria and the rest of the offense to come together. Entering last evening's game with the Chicago White Sox, the Rays offense ranked 13th in the American League with 3.6 runs scored per game, 12th in batting average at .231, 13th in on-base percentage at .289, 11th in slugging percentage at .377, and 12th in on-base plus slugging at .665.
The starting pitchers have certainly answered the call over the last week and a half. In between Jeremy Hellickson 5.1 inning performance against the Boston Red Sox on April 10th in a 16-5 Rays victory and last evening's 4.1 inning performance by Jeff Niemann in a Rays 9-2 loss, Rays starters posted an impressive string of 8 consecutive starts in which each pitched 7 or more innings. The Rays starters had an ERA of 2.41 of the 8 game stretch and the team posted a 7-1 record as the Rays improved their record from 2-8 to 9-9. It is the longest such streak by a Rays pitching staff since July 30, 2010, through August 4, 2010 (Rays went 4-2 over the six game stretch). The bullpen followed the starting pitchers lead over the 8 game stretch by not allowing a run over 13.1 innings of work, striking out 11 and only walking 5.
The bullpen, which was the most unsettled area on the team leaving spring training, seems to have a rhythm and roles have been defined. Kyle Farnsworth is the "not to be named-named closer" and Joel Peralta has established himself as the eighth inning option. Joe Maddon continues to mix and match with Ramos, McGee, Russell, and Cruz, while Andy Sonnanstine continues to be the long man out of the pen -- for now. The weak link in the Rays rotation is Jeff Niemann who, after last evening's game, has a record of 0-3 with a 7.08 ERA. He has given up 22 hits and 16 runs in 21.1 innings pitched. Will Joe Maddon continue to allow Jeff Niemann the opportunity to find himself while taking the ball every fifth day or will he insert Andy Sonnanstine back into the rotation?
The Rays enter the weekend only 2.5 games behind the New York Yankees and travel to Toronto to take on the Blue Jays who are 3 games out of 1st. Jeremey Hellickson will face left-hander Jo-Jo Reyes on Friday evening, David Price will take on Brandon Morrow on Saturday afternoon, and James Shields will take on Ricky Romero on Sunday afternoon. In other AL East action, the Yankees travel to Baltimore to take on the Orioles who are also 3 games out and the Red Sox who are 4.5 games out head to Anaheim to take on the Angels.