Life not as sunny for Rays

After blistering start, a struggle to keep up with Yankees, Red Sox, Sean McAdam reports.

For the first month of the 2010 season, the Tampa Bay Rays looked almost unbeatable. The Rays, who won the American League pennant in 2008, seemed to have it all. They were young, athletic and deep in talented, young pitchers. They were so dominant in April that, for a time, they looked capable of the kind of start the 1984 Detroit Tigers (35-5) reeled off. Lodged in the toughest division in baseball, the Rays still seemed as if they might run off and leave the deep-pocketed New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox gasping in their wake.

But that was then and this is now. Now, the Rays suddenly look a bit flawed. They went from having a comfortable lead over the Yankees and an eight-and-a-half-game bulge over the Red Sox, to being tied for second with Boston, looking up at first-place New York. The team that could not have lost 15 of their past 25 games. What happened? First, while the Yankees had played well from the start, the Red Sox did not. Boston were handicapped by injuries while attempting to incorporate three new position players into their line-up. The Red Sox got straightened out and, for the past two months, have the best record in the game.

And, along the way, some of the Rays' weaknesses became evident. Tampa Bay's pitchers compiled a glittering 2.69 ERA through the first six weeks of the season, but then some of their young pitchers stalled. Since May 18, the Rays own a collective 4.82 ERA, ranking them 25th during that span from 30 teams. The problems have not been limited to the pitching staff. Three everyday players - Jason Bartlett, the shortstop, Carlos Pena, the first baseman, and BJ Upton, the outfielder, are hitting .230 or less. The catching tandem of Dioner Navarro and Kelly Shoppach has similarly slumped.

Joe Maddon, the manager, has shuffled the batting order, hoping to find an effective combination. To date, he has not succeeded. Some thought that Tampa's relative inexperience in the starting rotation might surface later in the season, when young pitchers such as Wade Davis, David Price and Jeff Niemann all battled heavy workloads for the first time in the big leagues. Those problems have arrived earlier than anticipated. The team's precarious financial picture - they play in an ugly stadium with a bad lease and meagre fan support - means the Rays, unlike their division rivals, will not be able to take on additional salaries through late-season deals.

This is not to suggest that the Rays cannot recover and contend for a pennant. They have accumulated plenty of young stars and should be competitive for years. But the month of June has been a reminder that pennants are not won in April and May. The Rays are good; just not as good as they appeared in the first six weeks.