Opposite dugout: Rays are showing signs that they're fading from contention

rays-logo.jpgManager: Kevin Cash (1st season)

Record: 48-49

Last 10 games: 5-5

Who to watch: DH Joey Butler (.296 with 6 HR, 21 RBIs), IF Logan Forsythe (.283 with 10 HR, 40 RBIs), 3B Evan Longoria (9 HR, 42 RBIs), RHP Chris Archer (9-7, 2.73 ERA 153 Ks in 128 2/3 IP), RHP Erasmo Ramirez (8-3, 3.54 ERA), RHP Brad Boxberger (24 saves, 3.18 ERA)

Season series vs. Orioles: 4-5

Pitching probables:

July 24: RHP Chris Tillman vs. RHP Chris Archer, 7:10 p.m., MASN
July 25: RHP Miguel Gonzalez vs. RHP Erasmo Ramirez, 6:10 p.m., MASN
July 26: LHP Wei-Yin Chen vs. LHP Matt Moore, 1:10 p.m., MASN

Inside the Rays:

Until July, things were all skittles and beer at Tropicana Field, where a new manager and a never-say-die attitude carried the surprising Rays to first place in the American League East. Considering they had a rookie manager and no offense to speak of outside third baseman Evan Longoria entering the 2015 season, this was a hugely positive development for Tampa Bay. With no one running away with the division, the AL East was theirs for the taking.

Well, four weeks ago seems like an eternity for Tampa Bay, which enters this weekend's home series against the Orioles in third place place in the AL East, 6 1/2 game behind the Yankees. The Rays have dropped four of six games at the most inopportune time - losing two of three in Philadelphia to the worst team in the majors. They're getting healthier in a rotation that was decimated by injuries early in the season, but the offense still leaves a lot to be desired.

How bad are things with the lumber? The Rays rank last in the AL in average (.238), and are 26th in the majors in runs (345), 27th in hits (766), 25th in on-base percentage (.303) and 24th in slugging percentage (.376). Rookie of the Year candidate Steven Souza Jr. has 15 home runs, but the outfielder is on the disabled list with a finger laceration. Longoria has a team-leading 42 RBIs, but without much protection in the lineup, it's easy for opponents to pitch around him. Guys like versatile Logan Forsythe, who has 10 homers and 40 RBIs, and designated hitter Joey Butler, who is batting .296 with some pop, have contributed, but this team is suddenly looking a lot like a club that's ready to pack it in - or at least one who is wilting a little.

Still, with the Orioles, Rays and Blue Jays jockeying for position behind the Yankees, and desperate to stay in wild card contention, a modest winning streak could produce a big swing in the standings. Tampa Bay's pitching has kept them in striking distance, posting the best opponent batting average (.235) and fifth-most strikeouts (785). Closer Brad Boxberger has 24 saves in 26 tries, but an elevated ERA and WHIP, and the Rays lead the bigs with 39 saves.

Righty Chris Archer, who gets the nod for Friday night's series opener, was an All-Star, and the last time the O's faced him in May, he was in the midst of four straight starts without allowing an earned run. Well, he's come back down to earth, though his 0.84 ERA has only risen to 2.73. Archer has pitched at least six innings in 15 of his 20 starts this season, and is coming off a July 19 start at Toronto where he took the loss despite allowing only two runs on five hits in seven innings. His fastball/slider combination hasn't always tricked the Orioles, and he's 3-5 with a 3.13 ERA in 11 career starts versus Baltimore. So far in July, Archer is 0-2 with a 5.03 ERA.

Right-hander Erasmo Ramirez, who starts Saturday, has been a nice find for a team in need of consistent mound efforts. He's gone 8-3 with a 3.00 ERA as a starter, and has worked six or more innings five times - not bad for someone who wasn't even on the team's radar until a March 31 deal brought him from Seattle. Opponents have had trouble with his fastball/changeup arsenal, posting only a .221/.296/.331 slash line. Get runners on and the O's have a chance - foes hit Ramirez at a .299 clip with runners in scoring position. Against the Orioles, Ramirez has a lifetime 2-0 record with 2.40 ERA in four games (three starts), and he's 1-0 with a 0.00 ERA in two games (one start) in 2015.

Right-hander Matt Moore's start Sunday will be his fifth since returning from an extended 15-month recovery from elbow surgery. In his four outings this season, Moore has reached five innings only once, which means the 17-game winner from 2013 may take a while to round into shape. Fastballs account for 55 percent of his pitches, but Moore also features a curve, cutter and change. In two home starts this season, he's 1-0 with a 6.52 ERA, and opponents have an unsightly .333/.420/.467 slash line this season.

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