ST. PETERSBURG — For a year, all of the adjectives seemed to fit. There was no amount of praise that seemed to be an exaggeration.
You could talk about maturity and, yeah, it sounded right. You could talk about improvement, and everyone would agree. The consensus was that we were seeing something young and hungry and on the verge of growing into something special.
You could say it about a team, and you could say it about its catcher.
For a year, they were perfect together, the Rays and Dioner Navarro. He was an All-Star, a good receiver with a little pop in his bat and a little fire in his eyes. Where he had been soft, he had been reborn hard. Where he had been complacent, he had transformed into a competitor.
And now, they have backslid together, the Rays and Dioner Navarro. They may look the same, and they may sound the same. But something is missing.
And these days, they share the same question.
Gee, guys. What happened?
We are 25 games into a season, and Navarro has struggled mightily. He does not look the same at the plate, and he does not look the same behind it. If the Rays are going to climb out of their hole, it would help if Navarro would climb out of his.
Who would have thought this? A year ago, he was the most improved player on the most improved team in the game. This year, he is one of the biggest disappointments in a disappointing start.
"I believe in Navi" manager Joe Maddon said, "And I think he'll start turning this around."
Remember how good Navarro was last year? He was good enough to be an All-Star at age 24, good enough that Maddon believed he could make a run at a Gold Glove this year. He was good enough, in other words, to convince his team that he had arrived.
When you think of where Navi's career was at the end of 2007, when the Rays told him they weren't convinced he would be their starting catcher, it was a staggering improvement.
It was as if someone had switched on a light for Navarro. He was in better shape. He called better pitches. He blocked the plate better. He communicated better. He was, in the words of Maddon, "the quarterback of the pitching staff."
The temptation was to believe the Rays had found their catcher. This season, early indications are he has been misplaced again.
Consider his offense. Last year, Navarro hit .295, second among AL catchers with at least 400 at-bats. This year, he is hitting .169, and Saturday night, Maddon dropped him to ninth in the batting order.
Defensively, and more importantly, he is struggling, too. A lot more balls seem to bounding away from the plate these days, which is usually the sign of sloppy catching.
Last year, Navarro threw out 25 of 70 runners trying to steal, and his 35.7 average was third in the majors. This year, he has thrown out only four of 19 runners. The fourth one came Saturday night after Boston's Nick Green fell down halfway to second base.
So what happened? Is it a breakdown of mechanics, as Maddon suggests? Is it his bigger contract? Is it the higher expectations? Is it just a slow start by a player who had a career year last year? Is his All-Star achievement working against him, as it did with Trent Dilfer back in 1998?
It is a mystery. Navarro is in great shape, and he is healthy, and Maddon says he works hard. Whatever the reason, the Rays need Navarro's impact again.
"The talent that made him an All-Star is still there," said vice president Andrew Friedman.
Oh, let's be honest. Other players are struggling, too. Grant Balfour. B.J. Upton. And the last Tampa Bay player to get beat deep as often as Gabe Kapler was Rod "Toast" Jones.
Then there is No. 5 pitcher Jeff Niemann. Frankly, Niemann had pitched well in his previous two starts, but the Red Sox knocked him around so mercilessly Saturday night that the temptation was to send out a search party for Wade Davis.
For the Rays, however, it starts with Navarro. He was, after all, an All-Star last year. He showed there was more than this to his game.
If the Rays are going to rebound, it is time he started to show that again.