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Fennelly: Rays need rotation to find rhythm

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Published:   |   Updated: June 10, 2013 at 07:08 AM
ST. PETERSBURG -

It was pitching and very nearly pitching alone, consistent, unrelenting pitching, that carried the Rays into September playoff contention last season without any hint of any hitting.

Now there is hitting, more often than not. And the pitching comes and goes.

Now the problem, all of a sudden, is left-hander Matt Moore, whose fastball has lost its zip, whose curveballs and changes are now sitting ducks.

Moore, who began this season 8-0, was pulverized by the Orioles on Sunday at Tropicana Field, a career-high 12 hits and nine runs in five innings, six doubles inside of three innings, balls in the gap every time you looked up, a home run, a hit batsman, two wild pitches, good night, everyone, in a 10-7 loss.

“I legitimately got whacked around,” Moore said.

And it's a legitimate concern for a staff trying to find some consistency and with it a season that purrs.

It hasn't happened yet. David Price was down, then injured, while Moore and Alex Cobb did their very best Price and James Shields impression. Jeremy Hellickson got beat up. Roberto Hernando got knocked around by anyone not wearing Marlins uniforms.

Yes, the first two games of this 10-game homestand broke very well, pitching wise, two wins, great outings by Chris Archer and Hellickson. And Fernando Rodney looked like the 2012 Rodney closing things out Friday. The Rays won this series, and have won 10 of their past 14, and here come the first-place Red Sox.

But it will come down to the pitching if this team is going to get on a true run …

And that's why Moore's current state is troubling. Who knows where the Rays would be if Moore hadn't broken amazingly well this season, what with Price lousy from the start and Hellickson just as bad. It was Moore and Cobb who saved the day.

Now Moore has gone from 8-0 to 8-2 in a big way. In two starts, his ERA has skyrocketed by more than a run and a half, from 2.18 to 3.78. He allowed 15 earned runs while going 8-0 over those first 11 starts — and 15 in his last two. In Detroit, it was seven hits and the gift of seven walks. Sunday against Baltimore, it was simply a shelling.

The fastball velocity is down, slightly, and the breaking pitches are up — and tasty. It spelled disaster. It spelled the Moore who struggled last season. And the Rays can't use that right now. They need the rotation to find a rhythm, together, all at once. It wasn't exactly like that in 2012, but it seemed like it sometimes.

“Last year, the rotation was pretty much boom, boom, boom,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said.

It's been kind of a topsy-turvy 2013. Take the series with the Red Sox that begins tonight.

Before the season, who had Boston in first place in the AL East at this point, with the best record in the league? The Rays have fallen back into fourth.

Before the season, who would have thought that over about the past 50 games, the Rays would have scored more runs than any team in the majors?

Before the season, who would have thought that, coming into this series, the Red Sox would have a better ERA than the Rays?

Here's something that was true before the season and is just as true now:

“If our pitching gets better, we'll do this,” Maddon said before the Orioles series. “We can always be in it if the pitching is great and the hitting is just OK, but it's hard to be in it if the hitting is great, but the pitching is just OK.”

Moore insists it's nothing physical, his fastball dropping a few miles an hour. He says he has no weakness or pain. Well, maybe a different kind of agony ...

“It was pretty painful to be out there and watch those balls go in the gap like that,” Moore said.

It's a bit of a Whac-A-Mole deal right now: Moore and Cobb up, Price and Hellickson down; Hellickson showing signs of life Saturday, Moore pushing up daisies Sunday.

Is this staff ever going to make up its mind?

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