After Tuesday night’s disheartening 7-5 loss to the Red Sox, I was about to post this…
And so it is done. That 162nd game ever near. Hopes of another playoff run dashed with a fade down the finish. Heads held low. Body language telling the few fans left in the stadium all they needed to know.
The Tampa Bay Rays gave their playoff run a valiant effort but in the end, they just didn’t have enough.
Enough what, you ask? Well, hitting is the obvious answer. Sound defense is another.
The Tampa Bay Rays’ 2012 campaign is not like Shakespeare where you have to search long and hard for the inner meaning. It’s no episode of CSI that takes the entire cast sixty minutes to decipher it was Professor Plum with the candlestick in the conservatory. The answers are glaring. The Rays rank 27th in the majors with a team batting average of .238. Their total hits, 1181, rank dead last. Their team fielding percentage, .981, ranks 29th. Ben Zobrist leads the team with 68 RBIs. That ranks 65th among major league hitters. When you can’t hit and you can’t field, you can’t win, even if your pitching is among the league best, which it has been for most of the season. To make matters worse, the Rays rank last in the league in attendance, the only team in Major League Baseball to not draw over 20,000 fans a game.
It’s a story with another sad ending.
Bloomberg’s Businessweek recently called the Rays one of professional sports smartest spenders, however, that is a plaque on the wall they’d gladly trade for a World Series trophy. That’s like being called the world’s greatest coupon-cutter. Ownership wants to win as much as anyone, not to mention a new stadium. They’re just not willing to mortgage their future to get it.
We’ve heard the story before. The Rays are a small-market team that can barely draw. Ownership is not going to break the bank for a hired gun, who may or may not be able to hit anyway (see: Pat Burrell). Rays fans understand that and, while it would be nice to have a $200 million payroll, most appreciate the fact that their team can consistently compete on a considerably lower budget. That makes it all the more enjoyable when they take down the over-bloated rosters of Boston and New York. The only problem is they’re not beating Boston and New York. Down the stretch, they lost five of the last seven they played against them and seven of their last nine games overall. I’m not digging dirt on them yet but the shovel is ready. September is not a good time to go cold.
So what’s next for the Tampa Bay Rays? Big decisions, most notably surrounding free agents BJ Upton, James Shields and Fernando Rodney. Tampa has long had a love-hate relationship with Upton but pound-for-pound he’s one of the team’s best all-round players. Shields’ name, like Upton’s, has also been heard in trade rumors and re-signing him won’t come cheap, unless he finds it in his heart to stay in Tampa for half his actual value but let’s be honest, who does that these days? Clubhouse camaraderie is one thing. Ten million a year difference is another. In regards to Rodney, the Rays let go of last year’s closer, Rafael Soriano, who signed with the Yankees for ahem, $11 million, a little out of the Rays price range. We’ll see if Rodney suffers the same fate.
So for the Rays organization, it’s once again back to the drawing board. This team is close, very close, to putting together a championship ball club, but when facing lineups like Texas with Hamilton, Kinsler and Beltre, Anaheim with Pujols, Hunter and Trout and New York with Jeter, Cano and Granderson, well, the Rays just can’t compete, even if their pitchers are named Price, Shields and Hellickson.
Those lineups can only be tamed for so long. The Rays have to find a way to build an untamable lineup of their own.
Then this happened.
A Wednesday night beat down of Bean town, 13-3, followed by a game, out of reach, season on the line, down four runs to one, Cy Young Award candidate David Price pitching brilliantly but without run support, removed from the game, and then, bottom of the ninth…
Joyce singled to center, Keppinger singled to center, Pena singled to right allowing Joyce to score, stolen base, Vogt walked, Jennings singled to center, Keppinger scored, the pinch runner for Vogt scored, another stolen base and then BJ.
Three-run home run. Straight away centerfield, finger pointed to the sky.
The Rays scored six runs in the bottom of the ninth. So much for dejected body language.
That’s the thing about the Rays. Count them out, I dare you. They play with the desire to win. Heads hung low one minute turn to exhilaration the next as the little coupons that could refuse to give up.
Look, not much has changed, despite the emotional win. The Rays are well behind in the wild card. Their hitting is still remotely opportune and they’re still grasping at straws.
But they’re not out of it yet. The shovel still has some dirt in it and that’s what keeps the Rays, and their criticized, yet dedicated, fan base holding on. It’s what makes Rays fans believe until the final out.