ST. PETERSBURG — There has been no crash, no free fall, no mushroom cloud in the distance. Instead, it is as if the success has simply stopped. Quietly. Almost unnoticed.
Suddenly, the Tampa Bay Rays are sliding back down the mountain.
The Rays lost again Wednesday afternoon, losing a 3-0 decision to the Texas Rangers. They could not score. They could not hit. For crying out loud, they could not catch.
In baseball, there are slumps that are ugly, and slumps that are messy, and slumps where it looks as if a team will never win again. This is not one of those. This is more like failure has snuck up on the Rays. They are in the middle of a stealth slump, and their momentum is eroding.
• The Rays have now lost 11 of their last 17 games, the worst record in the American League East over that span. Of the 14 AL teams, only Minnesota and Kansas City have fared worse.
• Since May 13, when the Rays had a two-game lead in the division, the Yankees have gone 11-6 and the Red Sox 10-8.
• The bats have disappeared again. In nine of those 11 losses, the Rays have scored three runs or fewer.
• The Rays continue to struggle behind the plate. For goodness sakes, the Rangers stole four bases on four pitches Wednesday. Lately, there have been so many passed balls that there are dents on the backstop.
And now, as they face an 11-game road trip, we will find out a little more about these Rays. Are they as resilient as they seemed when they made you forget about their 1-8 start? Are they legitimate contenders in the AL East race? And, given the grunge rags they were wearing as they left the ballpark Wednesday, how tattered might they look upon their return on June 14?
"I'm not happy with it," Rays manager Joe Maddon said of the recent struggles. "We need to do better.
"If you look at it, I think our pitching has been consistent. We've made a few errors lately, but I think we've played pretty good on defense. I just think our offense needs to be more consistent."
For the Rays, that's a familiar problem. As a franchise, the Rays have done a fine job developing their rotation (all five of their regular starters were drafted and developed by the Rays). And the Rays seem to have a eye for bargain shopping when it comes to the bullpen. But it's always a hard thing for a low-budget team to import a middle-of-the-order thumper. And when the Rays hitters struggle, winning becomes a little harder to obtain.
"It's frustrating," outfielder Matt Joyce said, "but it's a long season. You're going to have some ups and downs. You're going to struggle from time to time."
Ah, but how about from place to place? More than anything else, the Rays' recent skid makes their upcoming road trip seem even more important. They need to at least tread water in order to hang with the Yankees and Red Sox.
"If you can go 6-5, you would be really happy," Maddon said. "If you can come back plus .500 on a trip like this, it would be awesome. Then again, we have played well on the road (15-10), so it's possible. To stay in step with everybody else, you want to go 5-6 at the worst."
Yeah? How does 8-3 sound?
"If that were to happen," he said, "it would be time to break out the cabernet sauvignon."
Wine or whine, this is a key point of the season. True, the first two months have been a delightful stroll through overachievement, but now is when we start to get our first clues as to the durability of this team. Is this a harmless little backslide, the kind that even the good teams have? Or are these the early signs of a season starting to impose its will on a team that lost so much from a season ago?
"I know we played well there for a while," infielder Sean Rodriguez said, "but I don't think we've played our best yet."
In other words, no, it isn't too much to expect the Rays to hang around in the AL East race.
"Absolutely," Maddon said. "I really expect (the standings) to look like this for a long time."
In the days to come, as they crisscross the country, we will find out much about the Rays' staying power.
In the meantime, let's start with a simple question: Did anyone remember to pack the bats?