The Tampa Bay Rays and Baltimore Orioles are tied for first place in the American League East, but you wouldn’t know it from the way they’ve been playing lately.
Now they meet tonight for the first of three games at Tropicana Field, but it’s not the kind of battle for division supremacy you might have expected a week or so ago. In a short span, both the Rays and Orioles have gone from rolling to reeling.
Each are coming off a three-game sweep by their respective opponents, with the Rays suffering their first sweep of the season at the hands of the red-hot Chicago White Sox at the Trop and Baltimore losing three on the road to Toronto.
At 29-22, they’re both in danger of losing more ground in the increasingly tight division unless they can turn things around, starting this weekend. The Rays have lost four of five, while the Orioles have lost five straight and eight of their last 10. They’re starting to look more like the long-time cellar-dwelling team of recent seasons in Baltimore than one of the genuine surprises of the 2012 season.
Each team is dealing with a myriad of injuries (the Rays have nine players on the disabled list; the O’s have eight and now All-Star right fielder Nick Markakis has a wrist injury, suffered this week while taking a swing Tuesday night in Toronto.).
Overall the only thing separating the two top teams from the last place Red Sox is 2.5 games, making the AL East the tightest division in baseball. It also means that if either the Rays or the Orioles get swept this weekend, they could suddenly find themselves at or near the bottom looking up.
The Orioles’ chief problem during its slide has been shaky starting pitching and an inability to score timely runs. Until recently, their pitching was the backbone of the the team this season, though the bullpen still boasts a 2.34 era. The Tampa Bay offense didn’t get a hit off of the Baltimore relievers until the final game of the last series played between the two in the beginning of May, when the Rays avoided a sweep by winning 9-8.
Manager Joe Maddon will also look for starting pitching to win them this series. David Price, Matt Moore, and Jeremy Hellickson all pitched well in their previous starts, but were unable to pick up wins. Part of the problem is that the team has had trouble scoring runs. Following the White Sox sweep, Maddon commented that “we’re playing hard. But we’re also making mistakes. We’re not playing a high level of baseball right now — too many mistakes on the field, things that we’re not used to doing. … We have to do a better job, whether it’s catching the ball or having better at-bats.”
The team batted just .241 in the past week. Despite their recent troubles, the Rays remain upbeat. “I’m very pleased where we’re at right now,” Maddon said, ” We have a day off to think about it, (then) we’ll come back and play the Orioles. We’re battling with them right now.”
After this series the Rays’ schedule will get no easier as they play in New York against the Yankees and then start interleague play against the Marlins, Mets, Nationals and Phillies.