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Offense, pitching both hurting Rays

ST. PETERSBURG

Put them in the American League Central and the Tampa Bay Rays are in a race with the Detroit Tigers for the division title. Put this year before last and you’re ecstatic the Rays are above .500 this late in the season and within sniffing distance of the wild card.

At this point in the 2007 season, the Rays were 26 games under .500 and 25 games out of first place.

First baseman Carlos Peña mentions that last point and wants to know where the humility has gone.

Most of us wonder the same about the pitching and the defense and the offense.

The stiff neck that forced designated hitter Pat Burrell out of Friday’s game is not believed to be serious. Rays manager Joe Maddon said Burrell should return to the lineup Tuesday. Most teams in the wild-card race would consider that a lucky break — losing your DH for no more than two games. But Burrell is batting .220 with only 10 home runs, so lucky may not be the correct word.

Get this: Burrell said his injury is the result of swinging and missing. Yeah, we know. It’s just as painful to watch.

As bad as Burrell has been, he is not the lone culprit here. There’s also B.J. Upton and Dioner Navarro and Peña when he’s not hitting home runs.

And yet the Rays could probably survive the big outs in the offense if the starting pitching was better.

They managed to reach the World Series last season by generating just enough offense, and the reason why that worked was because of the pitching. The Rays didn’t need to score many runs to win in 2008.

When Jeff Niemann is considered your stopper, you know you have problems, and that’s not a knock on Big Jeff, but a knock on the Big Three — James Shields, Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza. They are a combined four games under .500 after Friday. Shields has won once since June 20, though a little more offense on the days he pitches and Shields should have 10 wins.

Kazmir, who pitched well Saturday, and Garza, who pitches today, have been consistent in their inconsistency.

Just when you think they have turned the corner, BAM, you get 4 1/3 innings, nine hits, seven runs.

This far into the season, it’s tough to imagine the staff will make a turn for the better. By now you pretty much are what you are, and right now the Rays are a team trying to overcome a struggling offense that is trying to survive a shaky pitching staff.

The good news is the Rays still have enough games remaining with the Boston Red Sox and Texas Rangers (forget about the New York Yankees and the division title) to make a run at the wild card.

They have six left against the Rangers with the first three next weekend at Tropicana Field. They have six left with the Red Sox, all in September.

The trick is staying in the race long enough for those games to matter.

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