Around The Bigs: Injuries & Pitching Woes Continue To Sting Rays | Sharapova's Thigh

David Price can provide a nice boost to a struggling Tampa Bay Rays team.

Coming into the season, many thought the Tampa Bay Rays had a better team on paper than last year's team that of course went to the World Series. Some thought the team would have a sophomore slump in a division that also contains the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, and the Toronto Blue Jays. Even the doubters couldn't have predicted the team would be 23-27 and tied for last place in the AL East at this point though. They've lost five straight, and even blew a 10-run lead at Cleveland in that stretch.

The team has scored 282 runs, which is the most in baseball, so the offense has certainly done the job. However, they've had some ridiculously bad health luck so far and the pitching staff has been a major letdown. Starting second baseman Akinori Iwamura was lost for the season last week with a knee injury, and his middle infield partner Jason Bartlett landed on the disabled list with a sprained ankle in the last few days as well. Iwamura's glove will certainly be missed, and Bartlett's had a sensational season at the plate early on, with a .373 batting average, 7 home runs, 30 RBI, 14 stolen bases, and a 1.014 OPS. Pat Burrell has been out with a stiff neck for about 3 weeks also.

The struggles with the pitching staff have a little bit to do with injury problems as well, with closer Troy Percival out with tendinitis in his shoulder that could force retirement, starting pitcher Scott Kazmir out with a strained quad, left-handed reliever Brian Shoushe out with a muscle strain in his elbow, and submariner Chad Bradford hasn't even pitched a game yet as he is coming off elbow surgery.

Still, the pitching staff just hasn't gotten the job done. Andy Sonnanstine went 13-9 with a 4.38 ERA last year, he's now 3-5 with a 7.66 ERA this season. Scott Kazmir has a career 3.85 ERA in 134 games pitched, he was 4-4 with a 7.69 ERA before going on the disabled list. In the bullpen, Percival struggled, and Australian fireballer Grant Balfour has 14 walks in 20.1 innings, with a 5.75 ERA. It's incredible that a team that is four games under .500 this early has a +30 run differential, and a large part of that is because 5-10 in 1-run games. That's usually the sign of a struggling late-inning bullpen. David Price finally being brought up from AAA might ignite the pitching staff a bit, and it certainly wouldn't hurt if Kazmir can get healthy and look like his old self...

How about the San Diego Padres? Everybody and their mother picked the Padres to finish in the cellar of a weak NL West division. While that's still entirely possible, the Padres sure are playing some outstanding ball of late, winning 11 of their last 12 games. The key to the great stretch has been superb pitching, as they have allowed three runs or less in eight of those wins. Like the Rays, they have a run differential that makes their record surprising, at -31. And like the Rays, they have a very noticeable record in 1-run games: 12-6. The main reason why is their new closer, Heath Bell. They've literally been "Saved by the Bell"14 times in 14 chances. He's only allowed just 1 earned run in 19.2 innings pitched, for an ERA of 0.46...

Detroit Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge has always had impressive power for a 5'11", 190 pound guy, but never quite put it on display like he has so far in 2009. He hit 27 homers in 2006, but then just 14 in only 34 less at bats the following season, and 11 in 347 at bats in 2007. He has 12 homers in just 157 at bats this season. The 32-year-old's also walking in 10.9% of his plate appearances, higher than any season of his career. If he can keep hitting for power and get on base, he can play a huge role in the Tigers staying atop the AL Central division...

The St. Louis Cardinals' pitching has been unbelievable over the last 9 games. During that span, they've yet to allow over 2 runs in a single game! The return of starting pitcher Chris Carpenter from the disabled list certainly helped that. He's allowed no runs in 13 innings, with 5 hits, 2 walks, and 14 strikeouts. When healthy, he's one of the best pitchers in the National League, and gives the Cardinals a terrific 1-2 punch with him and Adam Wainwright. A healthy Carpenter might also give them a great shot at the NL Central crown...

Then there's the Washington Nationals' pitching staff. Yikes. They've allowed 280 runs in 46 games, that's over 6 runs per game. That's how you get to be 20 games under .500 only 46 games into the season...

The Texas Rangers continue to get much better pitching than anybody could've expected. The revival of veteran right-hander Kevin Millwood's played a big part in that. The 34-year-old had an ERA over 5 each of the last 2 seasons, but is sitting at 3.25 right now. The back of the bullpen has been the strength of the pitching staff. Closer Frank Francisco missed 2 weeks due to biceps tendinitis, but he's looked like the guy he was before the DL stint. He's yet to allow a run in 16.2 innings pitched. We know this team is going to score runs, and if they can keep pitching anything like this, there's no reason they can't hang in there all season long in the AL West...

We thought the other team in Texas, the Houston Astros, would be able to score their fair share of runs as well, but that hasn't been the case. They've scored only 183 runs in 45 games, just over 4 runs per game. They have a very weak starting rotation outside of Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez, and they play in a home park where the ball easily leaves the yard, so they're going to need to hit the ball to win games there. Unfortunately, they haven't been able to and have a 9-15 record at home. Lance Berkman is hitting just .229 right now though, and we know that won't continue. This team always seems to make a big run in the 2nd half of the season, and there's too much talent in the middle of this order to not put more runs on the board...

With interleague play underway, some hitters on National League clubs that haven't gotten more than a spot start here and there and some at bats off the bench, are finding their way into the starting lineup as a designated hitter. A couple hitters to keep an eye on that fit that description are Jake Fox of the Chicago Cubs, and Mat Gamel of the Milwaukee Brewers. The 26-year-old Fox had the triple crown in all of the minor leagues in his stint at Iowa this year, hitting .423, with 17 homers, and 50 RBI. He's always been able to hit, but is awful with the glove and has no real position. If Fox shows he can handle third base adequately at all, the Cubs might give him some starts there with Aramis Ramirez out until July, just to get his bat in the lineup. He's 2 for 3 since the callup, and I'd think will be at designated hitter for many of the Cubs games at American League parks, especially when they're facing a left-hander.

Gamel is a terrific offensive talent and like Fox, is terrible defensively. The 23-year-old is a third baseman, or that's at least that's where he's been trying to play. He has an .881 fielding percentage and 75 errors there in the minors. One season he made 53 errors in 113 games! He sure can hit though, and that's why many compare him so quickly to another player of the Brewers like that, Ryan Braun. Unlike Braun though, Gamel bats left-handed. He has a sweet swing and can get around on anybody's fastball. He's just 4 for 23 right now, but he's capable of providing a nice offensive spark for an already potent Brewers lineup.

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