After their stunning run to the AL pennant last year, the Tampa Bay Rays had thought their days at the bottom of the AL East were behind them.
Instead, they’re beginning to dig another hole for themselves in the division cellar.
The Rays have lost five straight series going into this week’s three-game set in Minneapolis, where they’ll continue a nine-game road trip with Monday night’s series opener against the Minnesota Twins.
The franchise had never entered a season with real expectations before this year, and so far Tampa Bay (7-12) does not seem to be handling it well. The Rays finished last in the East in nine of their first 10 seasons before beating out Boston and the New York Yankees to win the division and AL pennant last year.
The current team has played more like its distant predecessors, as the Rays’ offense has managed two or fewer runs in five of the team’s last seven games, with B.J. Upton having major problems atop the lineup. Upton, who missed the beginning of the season after shoulder surgery, is batting .156 with one RBI.
He went 0-for-4 for the fourth straight game Sunday, when Tampa Bay lost 7-1 in the decisive game of its series in Oakland. The Rays are now 2-4 on the trip and 3-9 in their last 12, batting .230 over that span.
“You don’t want to keep saying, ‘It’s early, it’s early,’” third baseman Evan Longoria told the Rays’ official Web site. “Because if there’s not a sense of urgency, things could get out of hand real quick.”
Jeff Niemann (1-2, 5.40 ERA) didn’t receive much run support in his first two starts, losing both of them, but the 6-foot-9 right-hander earned his first victory as the Rays beat Seattle 9-3 on Wednesday.
He didn’t allow a hit until the fifth inning before tiring and leaving the game after giving up three runs in 5 1-3 innings.
“It’s good to feel you are here and you belong here. It’s a great feeling,” Niemann said.
Twins right-hander Scott Baker proved he belonged with a breakout 2008 season, but he’s having a hard time regaining his form. Baker (0-2, 12.46) has allowed six runs in fewer than five innings in each of his first two starts, allowing 10 hits in 4 2-3 innings of a 10-1 loss to Boston on Wednesday.
“It’s not a confidence (issue),” Baker told the Twins’ official Web site. “I don’t really feel it’s a mechanical issue anymore. It just comes down to making better pitches, and that’s really all there is to it. I know I can do it.”
The Twins (9-10) open a six-game homestand also looking to find some consistency as they await the return of All-Star catcher Joe Mauer.
The reigning AL batting champion, who is coming off a back injury, was originally expected to return during this series, but soreness will likely delay his season debut until at least Friday.
The team has relied heavily on Morneau and Kubel, who had combined for three home runs in the first two games of the series. Both are hitting over .300 with four home runs, and they’ve combined for 29 RBIs.
None of Morneau’s 129 RBIs last season came in his six games against the Rays. The teams split the season series, including a two-game set at the Metrodome on April 16-17, 2008.