ST. PETERSBURG – The start was horrible. Left-hander Erik Bedard labored through a 41-pitch first inning, while walking four batters and struggling to find the strike zone.
The finish was encouraging. Once down by six runs, the Rays had the go-ahead run on base in the eighth inning before the offense faltered.
It was another case of mismatched parts and subpar pitching. After the Rays fell 9-7 against the Minnesota Twins in Thursday afternoon’s getaway-day matinee before 13,177 fans at Tropicana Field, Manager Joe Maddon said his club is simply trying to keep its head above water.
“You’re missing some really good guys,’’ said Maddon, referring to injured starters Alex Cobb and Jeremy Hellickson, out until at least late May, along with Matt Moore, who is done for the season. “You’re trying to do that (stay level) absolutely.
“You want to believe it’s going to come back to them (the replacement pitchers) and they’re going to pitch better on a more consistent basis. You’re missing some good guys. You can’t worry about that. You can’t cry about that. If they’re the best guys have to do it with right now, you’ve got to keep going and supporting (them).’’
Maddon gave Bedard every opportunity – but the pitcher couldn’t throw strikes.
Walks put him in an untenable position with Kurt Suzuki collecting a two-out, two-run single, then ex-Ray Sam Fuld following with an RBI double. By the second inning, it was 4-0 and Bedard had reached a 3-and-2 count on six of his first 11 batters.
“I couldn’t really throw a strike in the first inning and it became kind of a battle,’’ said Bedard, making his second start for the Rays.
It got better, but Bedard was gone after four innings with his pitch count at 90. It marked the eighth time in the last 10 games that a Rays starter failed to get past the fifth inning.
When Maddon turned to reliever Heath Bell, trailing 4-3, things quickly got worse.
Bell hit his first batter, then surrendered a single and an RBI double. Twins center fielder Aaron Hicks followed with a three-run homer – on a 3-and-2 changeup – and Minnesota roared ahead 8-2.
“Let’s put it this way, the pitch didn’t go exactly where I wanted,’’ Bell said. “It just hung and spun up there and he hit it pretty far. Hopefully, that doesn’t happen again.’’
Bell said Tampa Bay’s bullpen, which had thrown 44 1/3 innings since April 13 (when Cobb went on the disabled list), said he’s confident things will eventually turn around. Starters will go deeper into the game. Relievers will fill familiar roles.
“We have to keep battling and executing our pitches,’’ Bell said. “I didn’t do that today. I felt like I should’ve pitched a lot better than I did. I feel like I let the team down.
“But today, it showed you how these guys don’t give up just because we get knocked down by a bunch of runs.’’
From an eventual six-run deficit, the Rays methodically clawed back. After a pair of two-out walks in the eighth inning, pinch-hitter Logan Forsythe delivered an RBI single, then Ben Zobrist reached on an infield single, loading the bases.
But Rays center fielder Desmond Jennings, working against Twins reliever Jared Burton, popped out to first on the initial offering.
“Fastball right down the middle, didn’t square it, popped it up,’’ said Jennings, who also hit into two of Tampa Bay’s three double plays.
Maddon didn’t have a problem with Jennings swinging away, saying the first pitch is often the best pitch seen in an at-bat. In the ninth, the Rays went meekly, despite having the 3-4-5 hitters up, striking out twice and flying out.
Overall, the Rays collected 13 hits and showed drastic offensive improvement during the homestand. The pitching, though, is another matter.
“We have talked about (bringing up some pitchers from Triple-A Durham), but those guys have been vascillating themselves and it’s not like anybody’s been nailing it down there,’’ Maddon said. “Sometimes, you have to be patient. Sometimes, patience is rewarded.
“I don’t think we’re a knee-jerk kind of group. Keep working the plan and see how it plays out on the backside.’’