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More game-changing plays on Rays’ to-do list

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With Sunday’s loss to the Toronto Blue Jays, the Tampa Bay Rays again dropped one game below .500 at 16-17. They have fallen 6 games behind the New York Yankees, who have won 20 of their first 29 games.

So what is keeping this team from doing better?

The Rays are a mediocre, not terrible, offense ranking 12th in team batting with a .235 average. That is miles ahead of Kansas City’s average of .208. Corey Dickerson is the only Ray hitting above .300 with his .304 average good for 10th-best in the American League.

Pitching has been a strong point overall. Tampa Bay is a solid fifth in team earned run average with a mark of 3.60. Matt Andriese, Chris Archer and Alex Cobb all have ERAs below 3.60.

They are also a respectable 6th in team fielding with a .985 fielding percentage. But in the end, it’s the intangibles or making the game-changing or game-saving play in the clutch that has not been a regular occurrence.

One huge problem is Tampa Bay leads the league in not putting the ball in play. Rays players have struck out 330 times over their first 33 games, an average of 10 per game (they also lead in walks).

That leads the American League by a wide margin, 46 more than the 14th place Texas Rangers. When those strikeouts occur with runners in scoring position, potential wins can turn to losses in close games. Sunday’s loss to the Blue Jays is a perfect example, wasting a strong outing on the mound by Alex Cobb, when they managed only three hits and struck out 11 times.

“I thought Cobb was phenomenal,” said Rays’ Manager Kevin Cash, whose team’s only run was made possible by an error. “You saw two polar opposites with (Cobb) that was buzzing through a lineup by himself and (5 Toronto pitchers) buzz through another lineup.”

With so many strikeouts, Tampa Bay is dependent on the long ball to score multiple runs. With 133 home runs, they trail only the Yankees, Rangers and Houston Astros in that category.

While the pitching statistics are respectable, they have also blown 9 of 17 save opportunities. This statistic can be deceptive, but it shows the Rays gave up a lead in the 7th inning or later half of the time. Two of those belong to closer Alex Colome, who also has 8 saves.

On the positive side, the Rays have patched together four consecutive quality starts (3 runs or less in 6 innings). That has not happened since July 26-30 last year. Unfortunately, they are only 2-2 in those games.

A few pitches here and fewer strikeouts in key situations would put this team in a much better position in the standings. The good news is, there are still more than five months left in the season and Evan Longoria appears to be coming around.

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Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

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