Rays need return to pitching, defense

Rays need return to pitching, defense

ST. PETERSBURG -- Pitching and defense win championships. The other half of the inning, when your guys use the bats, can have real entertainment value. But if you can pitch and catch, you can have a below-average offense and still win a championship.

That was the time-tested formula that sent the Tampa Bay Rays to a breakthrough 2008 campaign; 97 regular season victories, a division championship, an American League championship and a World Series berth. The Rays' pitching was so solid, their defense was so sound, that their offense could be something of an afterthought. If it was merely competent, they were fine.

This season? The Rays are hitting much better than they did in 2008, but they are not pitching and fielding as well. So after two months of play this season, they can be found just south of .500.

This does not mean that the 2009 Rays are doomed. This is a young and talented team that still has room for growth. Over the next 100 games, it can fairly be expected to pitch and play defense closer to its 2008 levels. But the reason it is in fourth place rather than first in the AL East, is because it has not pitched and played defense at those levels.

The offense has been just fine. "Offensively, we've probably overachieved a little bit to this point," says Rays manager Joe Maddon. "We've done pretty well offensively."

In 2008, the Rays were merely ninth in the American League in runs scored, slightly below average. This year, they lead not only the American League, but the Major Leagues, in runs scored. That's enjoyable but with the drop off in pitching and defense, it hasn't added up to anything resembling progress.

Conversely, the Rays had the AL's second best team earned run average last season, at 3.82. After 60 games this season, the Rays were eighth in the league in team ERA, at 4.38.

Defensively, in 2008, only three AL teams had fewer errors than the Rays. This season, after the Tampa Bay team had played 60 games, there were 12 AL teams with fewer errors than the Rays. Defensive statistics are rarely precise reflections in baseball, but those numbers offer a fair overview of the difference in play over the last two seasons.

Injuries explain part of the problem. Closer Troy Percival is out indefinitely. Starter Scott Kazmir has missed three weeks. The admirable middle infield combination of shortstop Jason Bartlett and second baseman Akinori Iwamura is also unavailable. Bartlett is expected back shortly from the disabled list, but Iwamura is out for the season.

There have been recent signs of improvement. Maddon sees reason for hope, particularly in the recently improved performances of the starting pitchers.

"The biggest thing I think is that the starting pitching has gotten better and that's always a nice sign," Maddon said. We're not going anywhere without starting pitching, no team does. I still think we have to solidify the bullpen in some areas and that would be the next part of it. And I think our defense has to play a little more airtight. But we're not coming back without pitching and defense, we're just not, that's just the way it is. We've got to continue to improve in those areas, and as we do, we'll score enough runs to win.

"Pitching and defense; we went to the World Series because of those reasons. We hit enough at the right times last year, but we were always good enough to make the pitch or make the play that kept us on the right side of things. We're not as consistent with that right now."

The Rays just split the first two games of a three-game series with the Angels, losing, 4-3, on Tuesday night and winning, 9-5, on Wednesday night. The Tuesday night loss still rankled a day later. Two Rays errors led to two unearned runs and were the difference between victory and defeat.

"We're losing way too many close games and low-scoring games," Maddon said. "That's the game we've got to start winning. That's the game that's going to put us back to where we want to be. As long as we keep believing that we're going to win those games, we're going to win those games."

The Rays have been on a slowly improving pace. Since April 30, they are 22-17, the second-best record in the AL East over that period. And with the starting pitchers generally producing performances that have taken them deeper into games, there has been less overall stress on the bullpen. Now to get the defense back to something resembling last year's outstanding level.

"All of Spring Training, I talked about winning Gold Gloves," Maddon said. "I still stand by that. I think we're still capable of that stuff. You have to make the plays that we're not making.

"I'm a big believer in pitching and defense. The pitching is getting better; the defense has got to start showing up. Then, just keep doing what we're doing offensively and we'll be fine."

Baseball is a game in which the winning formula is beautiful in its simplicity. But at the same time, this simple formula can be extremely difficult to locate. If your front office was astute enough to put together a productive farm system and to make a helpful deal or two, you can have enough hitting to be covered in that area. Beyond that, you must have the even more essential components. As Maddon says, the pitchers must have fastball command, the starters must consistently work deep into the game, and the guys with the gloves must make the plays they are supposed to make.

"We still have to get back to that," Maddon says.

Fortunately for the 2009 Rays, there is enough talent here, and enough time left, for that to happen.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.