tampabay.com

Road trip carries a whiff of failure

The K's keep piling up, with another 15 marking the finale of a frustrating 3-7 trip.

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer
Published September 20, 2007


ANAHEIM, Calif. - With the likely exception of Akinori Iwamura and a few other players and staff in too-tight Hooters tank tops and short shorts, the Devil Rays have seen this kind of thing before.

When they scored often, as they did early on the 10-game Rays-across-America trip, they couldn't hold the leads. And when they pitched well, as they did Tuesday and, led by substitute starter J.P. Howell, again Wednesday against the soon-to-be AL West champ Angels, they didn't hit enough.

After their second straight 2-1 loss, and a disappointing finish to the 3-7 trip that certified a 10th straight season of 90 losses, manager Joe Maddon identified one of the core problems and said he'd seen enough.

"We strike out way too often, and that's got to go away," he said. "That's priority No.1 for next year, to cut down on the strikeouts. That's a big part of our situational hitting, inability to hit well in situations is because we strike out. We don't make enough adjustments mentally. And that's got to change."

The Rays are quite the fan club.

After 13 strikeouts Tuesday and 15 more Wednesday, they not only lead the majors, but their 1,247 are the 11th most of any team in any season in at least the past 50 years. At this pace, the Rays will not only break the AL record of 1,268 by the 1996 Tigers but finish at 1,320 and rank among the top-four teams, though well short of the 2001 Brewers' record of 1,399.

Maddon said the Rays strike out so much because they try too often to hit home runs, and because they don't make adjustments as they get deeper into counts and adapt a more strategic two-strike approach.

"It's unacceptable," he said. "We're not going to win when we do that. I don't care what sabermetrics says."

Maddon's frustration was undoubtedly enhanced because he thinks he knows how best to beat Angels pitchers, having been a coach there before coming to the Rays. And because his own pitchers did so well in slowing the Angels' swarming offense, though he has yet to win as a visiting manager in Anaheim in eight games.

The players, shorthanded and worn down, were frustrated, too, without hearing about next season's philosophy. "I'll probably worry about that right about Feb.15," Jonny Gomes said. "Until then, I really haven't cashed this year in and worried about next year."

Howell, who didn't find out until Tuesday he was starting for shut-down James Shields, showed glimpses that his minor-league success might, finally, transfer to the majors, showing more sharpness and aggressiveness.

The lithe lefty got his fastball up to 85 mph on occasion and had success with a tantalizing curve, striking out eight over six innings and allowing just two runs.

"There's definitely some more work I can use but I'm on my way to positive things," said Howell - 7-8, 3.38 in Triple A, 1-5, 6.80 in the majors.

The inability to hit and pitch well has been a problem for the Rays a lot longer than this disappointing trip.

"We've had some really good hitting performances and some really good pitching performances," Maddon said. "Unfortunately we haven't been able to morph them into the same date often enough."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/rays.


FAST FACTS

Fan club

The Rays hitters are striking out at a record pace. Here are the top totals from the past 50 years:

Year Team Ks

2001 Brewers 1399

2004 Reds 1335

2003 Reds 1326

2004 Brewers 1312

2005 Reds 1303

2001 Padres 1273

2002 Cubs 1269

1996 Tigers* 1268

2000 Cards 1253

2006 Marlins 1249

2007 Rays 1247

* AL record

Source: Stats Inc.