The Tampa Bay Rays' recent struggles may have cost them a shot at the AL East title.
Reaching the postseason at all could be in doubt if they continue to falter.The Rays will try to begin ending their sluggish stretch by capitalizing on the Seattle Mariners in the opener of this three-game set at Safeco Field on Friday night.Tampa Bay (77-62) has lost nine of 12 games after falling 6-2 to the Los Angeles Angels, settling for a split of the four-game series.Those struggles have severely dented the Rays' hopes of catching Boston for the division lead, dropping 6 1/2 games back with 23 to play.That likely means their best chance to return to the postseason will be through the wild card, and they hold the second spot. However, Tampa Bay's lead is just 2 1/2 games on New York, while Baltimore and Cleveland lurk three back.Part of the Rays' issues have been at the plate, where they're hitting .227 and averaging 2.6 runs during their rough patch.Evan Longoria has been one of the major culprits, batting .146 with one RBI and 13 strikeouts in 11 games.Visiting Seattle may not help since he's 3 for 22 over his last eight contests there. He went 5 for 12 with two doubles and a homer as Tampa Bay took two of three from the Mariners at home from Aug. 13-15.The Rays will give the ball to Alex Cobb (8-3, 2.82 ERA), who is 2-1 with a 2.19 ERA in four starts after missing two months due to a concussion suffered when he was hit in the head with a line drive.He returned from that scary incident Aug. 15, and earned a 7-1 win over Seattle, allowing one run with six strikeouts in five innings.Cobb pitched well Saturday, but was the hard-luck loser in a 2-1 defeat at Oakland. The right-hander pitched a five-hitter for his first complete game of the year."I liked the fact I was able to go deep into the game for the first time in a while," Cobb told the team's official website. "And I felt the same in the eighth as I did in the early stages of the game. That obviously will be in my mindset now, as it always is. Now that it's been done for me, I expect to do that every time out."He came up two innings short in his most recent outing at Safeco, allowing one run in a 4-1 win Aug. 13, 2012.The Mariners lost for the fourth time in five games Thursday, when they wasted a five-run lead and allowed a walkoff homer to fall 7-6 in 13 innings to Kansas City.A return home may not solve their struggles. Seattle has dropped six straight at home, and a defeat Friday would give the team its longest slide as host since an eight-game skid April 30-May 8, 2010.Hisashi Iwakuma (12-6, 2.92) will try to help the Mariners avoid getting closer to that dubious mark.He's 2-0 with a 2.33 ERA over his last four starts and coming off his best performance of that stretch. The right-hander, though, didn't get a decision in Sunday's 2-0 loss at Houston despite collecting seven strikeouts in seven scoreless innings.Iwakuma allowed two runs and fanned seven in six innings of a 4-3, 14-inning loss in his only meeting with Tampa Bay on July 20, 2012.