Rays must improve pitching, defense

Rays must improve pitching and defense

CLEVELAND -- An odd thing has happened to the Rays in their attempt to defend their American League pennant.

In reaching the World Series last season, Tampa Bay ranked second in AL team ERA, tied for fourth in fielding percentage, and ninth in runs scored.

Through 50 games this season, those numbers are upside down, a big reason the Rays have been unable to put together a stretch of consistent baseball. Tampa Bay is 10th in team ERA, eighth in fielding percentage and first in runs scored.

Manager Joe Maddon won't turn down the offense, but he knows the pitching and defense must get better for the Rays to get back into the AL East race.

"Our pitching and defense are still not where we want them to be," Maddon said. "We have overachieved in one area and underachieved in the other two."

Rays starting pitchers are 18-19 with a 5.16 ERA, which stands 11th in the AL.

Tampa Bay returns home Friday night to start a three-game series with the Twins. The Rays will send their ace, James Shields, to the mound.

"I expect him to go out there and battle like he usually does," Maddon said. "Whenever he goes out there, he goes deep into the game and throws about 110 pitches."

Pitching matchup
TB: RHP James Shields (3-4, 3.63 ERA)
Coming out of the bullpen for his eventual no-decision against the Marlins on Sunday, Shields said he knew from the beginning he didn't have his best stuff. But despite giving up three runs in the third inning, he battled through it and ended up with a half-way decent start. The 27-year-old gave up four runs in 6 2/3 innings while surrendering a season-high 12 hits, striking out seven and walking two. With two outs in the seventh, he got hit by a hard comebacker off the bat of Ross Gload and then came out of the game. But manager Maddon said Shields -- who didn't appear hurt -- was taken out because he had 102 pitches under him, not because he was injured. Shields is 1-1 with a 5.76 ERA in five career starts against the Twins.

MIN: RHP Scott Baker (2-5, 6.32 ERA)
Baker worked between starts with pitching coach Rick Anderson on staying taller in his delivery to help keep his pitches down in the zone more consistently. The extra work seemed to pay off, as Baker threw 8 1/3 innings against the Brewers in his most recent outing, allowing three runs on six hits and delivering just his second quality start of the season. By throwing more pitches down in the zone, Baker's high fastball was more effective. The Twins hope he can continue that trend when he faces the Rays at Tropicana Field. Baker is 1-1 with a 4.85 ERA in three career appearances (two starts) vs. Tampa Bay.

Maddon said there's nothing new on the status of reliever Troy Percival, who was placed on the DL with shoulder tendinitis on May 22. Percival has returned to his home in California to mull over his future. ... Maddon hopes shortstop Jason Bartlett (sprained left ankle) won't be out for much longer than his 15-day stint. "I don't expect it to be much longer, but we'll have to wait and see," Maddon said. Bartlett is third in the AL with a .373 batting average. ... Chad Bradford, who is coming off right elbow surgery, pitched a scoreless inning at Class A Charlotte vs. Clearwater on Wednesday. ... The Rays are 5-10 in one-run games. ... Utility man Ben Zobrist is batting .386 (17-for-44) with three homers and 12 RBIs in his past 15 games. ... Carl Crawford has an eight-game hitting streak during which he's hitting .303 (10-for-33).

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On the Internet
 Gameday Audio
•  Gameday
•  Official game notes

On television

On radio
• WDAE 620

Up next
• Saturday: Rays (David Price, 0-0, 5.40) vs. Twins (Francisco Liriano, 2-6, 6.42), 4:10 p.m. ET
• Sunday: Rays (Matt Garza, 4-3, 3.65) vs. Twins (Nick Blackburn, 4-2, 3.55), 1:38 p.m. ET
• Monday: Off-day

Steve Herrick is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.