ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The resurgence of Rays starter Jake Odorizzi, now with three straight scoreless starts, is a reminder of the strong starting pitching Tampa Bay was supposed to have this season, though it's frustrating those starts were seldom found in the previous two months.
"Obviously we'd all like to be like this from the start of the season to the end," Odorizzi said. "It's nice to be on it now, and you just keep plugging away and I knew things would get better. You just have to stay the course."
Odorizzi hasn't given up a run in his last 20 2/3 innings, four short of the team record for a starting pitcher. His turnaround is what the Rays need from the rest of their rotation such as Thursday starter Drew Smyly, who goes into the series finale against the Kansas City Royals with a 3-11 record and a 5.29 ERA.
His last start, however, was what the Rays are looking for -- six innings, four hits and two runs in a victory over the Yankees. To continue where Odorizzi left off, he'll have to be nothing like the pitcher the Royals saw May 31.
In that start, Smyly lasted only four innings -- matching his shortest outing of the year -- and gave up a season-high 12 hits while tying his high with eight runs in a 10-5 loss.
Inconsistency is something the Royals pitchers know well.
Thursday starter Ian Kennedy is 6-9 with a 4.23 ERA. His last outing against the Rays, moreover, is something you'd want to repeat, holding Tampa Bay to one run (unearned) on three hits in six innings. In 11 starts since, he's given up at least one earned run in every start.
Royals manager Ned Yost has tried nearly anything to solve his pitchers' problems. Knowing that Wednesday starter Edinson Volquez had struggled in the first inning, Yost had pitching coach Dave Eiland warm Volquez up before the game, but stop early, sitting him down for a moment. He then got him back up for the rest of warmups, thinking the pronounced break would seem like a first inning to his mechanics and bypass his early issues.
"The four-run first did us in," Yost said, pleased that Volquez held the Rays to two runs in the next five innings before his bullpen imploded. "If we eliminate the first inning, we're right in the game."
The Royals had beaten the Rays in 12 of 13 previous meetings, so a loss Thursday and a season split will be disappointing for a team still just five games below .500 but bearing little resemblance to last year's championship team.
Fixing those problems will start in the first inning, where Royals pitchers have a 6.48 ERA, the worst in the majors. The Rays hit for the cycle in their first seven at-bats Wednesday -- double, single, home run, triple -- so nearly anything from Kennedy will be a step in the right direction.