Rays' bats struggling in clutch
Defense, pitching have been team's best weapons
ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays' pitching has been solid, sporting the fifth-lowest ERA in the American League.
The defense -- particularly the revamped infield -- has been among the best in the Major Leagues.
The club's hitting, on the other hand, has been timely at best.
The Rays' offense has yet to kick into high gear this season, and although the club is batting a respectable .264, the team's low productivity with runners in scoring position (RISP) is a glaring statistic.
"With all the preaching that we do and all the capabilities that we have, we can still get better situationally," manager Joe Maddon said.
Consider this: In Thursday night's loss, the team was 2-for-14 with RISP and left nine stranded. Friday night wasn't much better, as the Rays were 1-for-8 in the same scenario.
Conversely, the Rays' defense turned a pair of inning-ending double plays in the second and third innings on Friday, and Al Reyes, J.P. Howell and Dan Wheeler tossed three scoreless innings of relief to help back a solid effort from starter James Shields.
"Maybe we kind of rely on our pitching and defense a little too much," Jason Bartlett admitted. "I know this team used to score a lot of runs [in seasons past] and now it's vice versa. So when we do start scoring runs we are going to be even better."
First baseman Carlos Pena -- who was 0-for-3 on Friday -- is hitting only .241 with RISP. But the slugger, whose struggles at the plate have been well chronicled, says the team is approaching the topic with the right mentality.
"That stuff comes and goes. You have a stretch where you are on, everybody's doing a good job moving running over getting the clutch hit; other times it seems to just not come," Pena said. "And if you understand that, you kind of just stay within yourself and go with the flow and say, 'This time they got us, we know we will get them next time.'"
Maddon has mentioned several times this season that the Rays have done extra hitting and are working extremely hard in hopes the pendulum will swing toward the bats.
When there are runners in scoring position, starters like Pena, Bartlett (9-for-42), Evan Longoria (10-for-47) and Akinori Iwamura (10-for-40) have all struggled to push them across.
"The intent is definitely there, the awareness has been [also]," Maddon said. "It's just the execution we got to get a little bit better at that."
Some bats, like those swung by B.J. Upton and Carl Crawford, have been delivering clutch hits all season. The Rays' leaders in RBIs boast impressive numbers with RISP, with Upton hitting .340 and Crawford at .311.
But if the first-place squad is going to continue to contend, several more bats need come on board.
"When those games become even more meaningful, you have to take advantage of those opportunities every time you are up," Maddon explained.
And the club figures to get to those games. The Rays entered Saturday night's game an American League-best 33-22, and are on a torrid pace -- particularly at home. If the club can muster up some more offense, the Rays could prove even peskier for their AL opponents.
"Of course we want to make sure we put up a lot of runs on the board, but we are winning," Pena said. "At this point, we are like it has to happen, we are in first place. Let's keep on doing our thing and help out with the bat a little bit more."
Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.