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Tampa Bay Rays: Rough start to rough stretch

No one thought this would be easy for the Tampa Bay Rays and the first three games of a brutal 16-game stretch against top contenders have fortified that notion.

The Rays will enter Sunday afternoon’s 2:05 p.m. matinee in New York trying to avoid a four-game sweep after taking it on the chin once again Saturday, 4-1.

The Yankees series marks the first four games of 16 against New York, the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals. Tampa Bay heads to Houston for three (June 18-20) before returning home for three more against the Yankees (June 22-24), two against the Nationals (June 25-26) and four more with Houston (June 28-July 1).

At 46-20, the Yankees own Major League Baseball’s best winning percentage (.697). Houston isn’t far behind (.653) and the Nationals entered Saturday at 37-29 and in second place in the National League East.

Saturday’s defeat dropped Tampa Bay to 32-38. Scoring four runs in 27 innings in New York has added to the difficulty of beating its red-hot rival. Luis Severino and his second-best AL ERA (2.09) dominated Rays batters Saturday but Friday night was a nine-inning groan fest. Tampa Bay got blanked by starter Jonathan Loaisiga and four relievers. Loaisiga was making his MLB debut and surrendered three hits and four walks while striking out six.

The Rays did announce a little good news with the bad Saturday evening. Shortstop Adeiny Hechavarrira, who hasn’t played since May 17, was reinstated from the disabled list, but infield prospect Christian Arroyo will head to the 10-day DL with a left oblique strain.

The sluggish offensive start to the Yankees series is a continuation of the Rays’ June struggles. The team’s 44 runs over 15 games and .218 batting average this month both rank third-worst in the AL.

Tampa Bay’s been working in some of its young talent this month, notably first baseman Jake Bauers and shortstop Willy Adames, but it’s hard to point the finger at a couple 22-year-olds batting over .300 the last seven games.

If the streaky Rays want to keep their record from sinking to a season-low level, they’re going to need to pump the breaks on this current skid and find a way to pull out a few games during a daunting stretch. Tampa Bay was at a season-best two games above .500 (28-26) on May 30 before an eight-game losing streak squashed that budding optimism.

Cranking up another extended winning streak is unlikely. Avoiding an overall horrendous performance throughout this stretch? That feels like a realistic goal.

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