Slumping Rays and Orioles Clash in Weekend Series: Fan's Look

Yahoo Contributor Network

Just as they did 3 weeks ago in Camden Yards, the Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles are set to begin a weekend series that will determine which side controls the lead in the American League East. In the interim, however, both fan bases frustratingly realize that much more changed than just the current venue.

The Rays are Orioles remain in a 1st place tie with identical 29-22 records. While those marks are good enough for the high water mark in the division, both teams are slumping. While the O's have dropped 5 consecutive games, including a sweep by the Toronto Blue Jays, Tampa Bay is not performing much better.

After capturing 2 of 3 contests in Boston, the Rays returned home to be humbled in 3 straight losses to the Chicago White Sox. Since Chicago appears stronger than many expected, it is not time to press the panic button merely because of these recent setbacks. Nevertheless, there are definite concerns that have emerged, which manager Joe Maddon must hope the forthcoming series improves.

During the 3 matchups against the White Sox, the Rays only netted 6 combined runs. On Monday, May 28, the team was simply overpowered by a gem from 23 year-old stud Chris Sale. Fans can discount that type of loss as something that happens during a 162 game season.

However, in considering the pair of defeats that followed, no such excuse exists for the squad's woeful performance. In losing to Philip Humber on Tuesday, the Rays fell to a hurler who had posted a miserable 8.22 ERA in his prior 6 starts.

Even more unforgivable, the team then proceeded to fail to capitalize on the 4th inning ejection of starting pitcher Jose Quintana during Wednesday's game. Dealing with an unusual scenario, the White Sox had to scramble to assemble long relief on little notice. Good teams must take advantage of these opportunities -- yet the Rays could not rattle the 4 pitchers employed over 5+ innings.

In fact, during the last 2 losses, the club's 5 total runs came exclusively through the long ball. Home runs from Carlos Pena, Luke Scott, and the newly acquired Hideki Matsui have provided the only offense over the past 18 innings.

Obviously, this funk needs to change if the Rays are to hold onto 1st place this weekend. After surprisingly getting production from a make-shift lineup for several weeks, the absences of Evan Longoria and Desmond Jennings are proving costly. With Ben Zobrist forced to the outfield, the club's light hitting infielders (Elliot Johnson, Drew Sutton, et al.) have been unable to contribute consistently towards run production. Sadly, the spots of catcher, second base, shortstop, and third base too often have proven to be offensive black holes.

Both injured players are mercifully inching closer to a return and Jennings is already on rehab assignment with the minor league Charlotte Stone Crabs. Though all teams encounter injuries, some like the Rays have less margin for error. The team's low-budget lineup can be exponentially more potent when healthy.

A final note of concern is that Tampa Bay has now dropped 9 of 13 home contests and were swept in a 3 game series at home for the first time in over a year. Though Joe Maddon takes pride in his group's perennial ability to win on the road, playoff teams must capably defend home turf. Tropicana Field may not welcome baseball's largest crowds, but playing in a dome typically provides a definite edge, on which the Rays must capitalize.

Possessing a 15-9 mark away from Camden Yards, the Orioles have been one of the league's best road teams. With the division lead at stake -- and the Yankees, Blue Jays, and Red Sox all within striking distance -- something must give.

The weekend series kicks off with a 7:10pm start in St. Petersburg on Friday, June1, as David Price makes his 100th career start against Baltimore's impressive Taiwanese rookie Wei-Yin Chen.

Sources:

Yahoo! Sports

More by Jeff Briscoe from Yahoo! Contributor Network:

Rays Mowed Down by Tampa Bay Product Chris Sale

Jeff Briscoe is a regular contributor for the Yahoo! Contributor Network and a follower of the Tampa Bay Rays . He co-hosts The Sports Train radio show on 1580am WCCF in Southwest Florida.

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