Hitting with runners in scoring position has been a huge problem for the Tampa Bay Rays.
After a home run by Jeff Keppinger in the second inning, the Rays got a runner to second base on five occasions Friday night — and came up empty every time.
Their best rally came in the seventh, when Keppinger led off with a double and Dan Haren walked his next batter before coming out. But Ryan Roberts and Jose Lobaton were retired by Kevin Jepsen on fly balls and Elliot Johnson struck out. That was the last gasp for the Rays in a 3-1 loss to the Los Angeles Angels.
"We've talked about it. It's the same story. The opportunities are out there. We just have to do better," said manager Joe Maddon, whose team was 0 for 7 with runners in scoring position and is batting a paltry .183 in those situations since the All-Star break.
"I felt good about Ryan hitting under those circumstances, and I thought Lopie had a really good at-bat, too," Maddon said. "Jepsen looked like he was a little more frisky than he had been in the past, a little more aggressive, and he did a nice job."
Jepsen has allowed two earned runs in 11 1-3 innings against the Rays spanning 11 appearances, and their hitters are 7 for 40 against him.
"At that point, there's not a whole lot of leeway. So you just go after guys," Jepsen said. "That's the thing about coming on in the late innings — anytime you have a bad outing, you're spoiling somebody else's good outing. But you can't think about that. Once you get the first out, then you've got to bear down on the second guy. And when you get three outs and they tell you your night's over, you take a deep breath."
Rays starter Alex Cobb (4-8) had a chance to take a deep breath in the first inning, courtesy of pitching coach Jim Hickey after the Angels put runners at the corners with one out. Hickey went out to talk with Cobb after just 17 pitches and a 1-0 count on slugger Mark Trumbo — who then grounded into an inning-ending double play.
"Jim's really good at coming out and taking your mind off everything and focus on one particular thing," Cobb said. "He's got a good feel. He knows when things are speeding up out there on the mound and getting out of hand, and they were. He saw me getting under the ball a little bit, so he told me: 'This is a good double-play candidate, so keep the ball down and make him hit it on the ground.'"
Cobb faced Trumbo again in the third and gave up an RBI single that capped a three-run rally. It was the fourth consecutive two-out hit by the Angels, including Albert Pujols' two-run double off the glove of a diving Sam Fuld in left field. AL batting leader Mike Trout started the rally with a single before Torii Hunter reached on a perfectly placed bunt single between third base and the mound.
"The big play was by Torii Hunter," Maddon said. "I mean, normally you don't bunt with two outs. But he knows that the other guy (Pujols) is behind him, and it's not a bad play."
Cobb was charged with three runs and eight hits in seven innings without walking a batter. He struck out three. The 24-year-old right-hander, returning to the site of his first major league victory last June, left his previous start Saturday against Seattle after two innings because of a bruised right leg. He is 1-5 with a 6.25 ERA in six starts since pitching two-hit ball over seven innings in a 3-0 victory against the Marlins on June 17.
"Overall I felt good," Cobb said. "I've been struggling the last couple of games with my fastball command, and I felt that was there tonight. I was able to get ahead most of the game, and when you're in the driver's seat, it makes pitching a lot easier."
Keppinger had three hits in three at-bats against Haren (8-8), including a leadoff double in the seventh that made him 7 for 14 against the three-time All-Star. Keppinger's fourth home run of the season extended Haren's streak to seven straight starts allowing at least one homer. It was the 18th he's given up in 19 starts, just two fewer than he served up in 34 starts last year.
"They came out really aggressive," Haren said. "They had a first-pitch homer by Keppinger, and they were swinging early. So I went primarily to softer stuff, just to get them off balance. We scratched out a couple of runs and the bullpen did great."
Haren allowed five hits in six-plus innings and struck out six, hours after the Angels solidified their rotation with the acquisition of 2009 AL Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke in a trade that sent rookie shortstop Jean Segura and Double-A pitchers Ariel Pena and Johnny Hellweg to Milwaukee.
Scott Downs pitched a scoreless eighth, retiring pinch-hitter Brooks Conrad with two on. Ernesto Frieri worked a perfect ninth for his 12th save in as many opportunities.
NOTES: Matt Joyce is 0 for 13 against Haren, and Ben Zobrist is 3 for 24. ... Tampa Bay sold the signing rights of 1B-OF Brandon Allen to the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks of the Japanese Central League. The Rays acquired him off waivers from Oakland on April 19. ... The Rays, who lead the majors with 369 walks, got only one the entire game. ... The Rays' six-game errorless streak is their longest this season and four shy of the franchise record. But they have committed 76 errors, three more than they had in 2011.