Following a historic start, the slumping Rays are suddenly playing catch-up in the AL East

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Tampa Bay Rays' Luke Raley walks back to the dugout after striking out against the Baltimore Orioles during the ninth inning of a baseball game, Sunday, July 23, 2023, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Scott Audette)

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The slumping Tampa Bay Rays believe in themselves.

Baseball’s best team for much of this season has seen a historic start give way to a July swoon that’s loosened its hold on the top record in the American League.

The surging Baltimore Orioles won three of four between the division rivals over the weekend, taking over first place in the AL East and dropping the reeling Rays, who opened the year with 13 consecutive victories, two games off the pace.

Tampa Bay entered July with a season-high 6½-game division lead but has stumbled to an AL-worst 4-14 record this month while sputtering offensively and weathering injuries that are testing the depth of their starting pitching.

The Rays haven’t compiled one of the best marks in the majors over the last decade without being resourceful and resilient, though, which is one reason manager Kevin Cash is confident his team will rebound and finish strong as it aims for a fifth straight playoff appearance.

“We’re just a very talented team that is going through a tough spot right now,” Cash said.

“I’m guessing every guy in there right now is feeling a sense of urgency of wanting to contribute and wanting to be that big swing or have that big swing that gets us going,” Cash added after Sunday’s 5-3 loss to the Orioles. “It’s just not coming right now.”

Since winning two straight against last-place Kansas City coming out of the All-Star break, the Rays have dropped seven of eight to fall behind the Orioles. They’ve scored three or fewer runs 11 times in July, including five games with one run.

“The hardest part of this game is hitting. ... Our job is to just keep on working, try to stay positive,” All-Star first baseman Yandy Diaz said through a translator.

“And we still have a lot of time. We still have about two months or so to go,” Diaz added. “We’re going to stay focused and stay positive, and I think we’re gonna come out of it.”

With a projected rotation of Shane McClanahan, Tyler Glasnow, Zach Eflin, Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs, the Rays entered spring training with expectations of having one of the deepest pitching staffs in the majors.

All five have served stints on the injured list, forcing Cash to constantly adjust pitching plans.

While McClanahan (11-1, 2.89 ERA) and Eflin (11-5, 3.36) have been outstanding, Glasnow (left oblique strain) began the season on the injured list and didn’t make his first start until May 27.

Springs (left elbow) was placed on IL after going 2-0 with a 0.56 ERA in three April starts, and Rasmussen (right elbow) was pitching well (4-2, 2.62 in eight starts) when he went down in May. Both will miss the remainder of the year, meaning the Rays may be in the market for some help at the trade deadline.

McClanahan, an All-Star for the second straight season, spent 17 days on the IL due to mid-back tightness before rejoining the rotation on July 17. Eflin missed time in April due to low back tightness but has been everything the Rays hoped they were getting when the former Phillies pitcher signed a $40 million, three-year contract that’s the largest deal for a free agent in Rays history.

“You always hate losing people and having people go down. ... But at the end of the day we’re focused on the game that’s in front of us, the game today,” Eflin said. “Nobody is down in the dumps or anything.”

With a potent lineup featuring Diaz and fellow All-Stars Randy Arozarena and Wander Franco, Cash said it’s only a matter of time before the offense gets back on track.

The team's skid comes on the heels of Cash benching Franco two games for the way the 22-year-old shortstop has handled some frustrating situations, at times not running hard on the bases or being a good teammate.

Although the offensive struggles are hardly all on Franco, the first-time All-Star's production at the plate has tailed off.

Before the benching, the young star was batting .287 with an .804 OPS and eight home runs in 72 games. Since returning to the lineup, he's hit .207 with a .655 OPS and three homers in 24 games.

Arozarena has been slumping lately, too, hitting .147 (5 of 34) with one homer, three RBIs and nine strikeouts in nine games since the All-Star break.

“We’d like to snap our fingers and get out of it, but we’re going to have to work,” Cash said.

Arozarena, via a translator, agreed.

“I feel good and trust this team,” the outfielder said. “I think we’re a really good team. ... It’s a long season. We just got to keep on going and battling.”


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