Saturday, January 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Blown lead symbolizes Rays' state

ST. PETERSBURG

Seven to nothing. They held a 7-0 lead, and they could not close it out.

Not at home.

Not against the last-place Blue Jays.

Not in a game they needed to win.

Instead, the Rays clawed at their collars, and they tried to clear their throats from something thick, and little by little, they went about blowing another lead. Once again, mediocrity rose up to grab them and pull them deeper into the ooze of fourth place.

And once more, you thought, wow, is this an ugly start, right down to the mushroom cloud.

Say what you want about this being May. Remind yourself how much baseball there is to still be played. Talk about the comebacks of seasons past, if you want. That's what teams that are three games under .500 do to make themselves feel better. But the raw truth of it is that, right now, the Rays are not a good baseball team, and horrors, they appear to be getting worse.

The Rays proved it again Monday night against Toronto, taking a huge lead then gagging it away piece by piece. It was like watching a team bleed to death by paper cuts.

"When you score seven runs in one inning, you should win that game," said manager Joe Maddon. "No doubt."

By now, there is plenty of doubt. The Rays have stumbled through leads for most of the season. It was the 12th time in their 17 losses the Rays have blown a lead, but this one was the worst.

Never before had the Rays blown a seven-run lead to lose at the Trop, not in all those blooper seasons. And again, this was against Toronto, the only team in the American League East that is actually below the Rays in the standings.

So who do you blame for this? Jeremy Hellickson, who had a 7-0 lead in the third (and who blew a 6-1 lead in his last start)? Jake McGee, he of the 12.71 ERA, who gave up two runs in an inning? The offense, which managed only three singles after the seven-run third? Fernando Rodney, who gave up a two-run home run in the ninth to blow his second save of the year, as many as he did all of last year? Maddon, who tried to squeeze four outs out of Rodney?

Guilty, all of them. In some ways, this is like an Agatha Christie novel; everyone did it.

Regardless, this one has to rip the hearts out of Rays fans. Tampa Bay had closed to within two games of .500, and a victory here would have been its third in four games. Instead, the Rays are talking to themselves once again about another game that somehow slipped away.

Before the game, Maddon had used the word "mediocre" to describe the start of his team. But even mediocre teams can hold a touchdown lead. Somehow, the word "disappointing" comes to mind. "Crushing," too.

The thing is, Maddon used the word "mediocre" as if it was a good thing, because he still believes this team is going to get it going. But at some point, don't you have to wonder if it will get it going? At some point, there will be too big a deficit and too many teams to climb over to make it to the postseason.

For all of the problems on the Rays, it starts with pitching. Always. With David Price. With Hellickson. With Roberto Hernandez. With a fastball-first approach. With a bit of the swagger that seems to have gone missing.

"We have to pitch to our level to be good," Maddon said. "We can hit as much as we want. Everyone can dig the offense and chicks can dig the long ball, but unless we pitch at our level, we cannot win 90 games."

Odd, because Hellickson seemed to cruise in the early going Monday night. All season, he has struggled in the first inning, but he got out of that unscathed, and he allowed only three hits in the first three innings.

Somehow, however, the big lead seemed to ruin him. As soon as he got the 7-0 lead, he gave up three, and he was done by the fifth. Hellickson, normally an even-keeled pitcher who doesn't let much affect him, suddenly cannot hold a lead.

And then came in the bullpen that hasn't shut anyone down lately. That's a mystery, too. McGee was a terrific pitcher last year. This year, he seems to have taken up slow-pitch. Rodney hasn't found his rhythm.

It's a tough chore, trying to win when you can't start and you can't close it out. At 7-0, the game should be over. At 7-0, it should be a matter of padding statistics and getting ready for the next game.

Instead, they lost. Think about it. They blew 7-0.

And the frustration grows more and more familiar.

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