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Homer a blow against dwindling calendar for Tampa Bay Rays

ST. PETERSBURG — If this is panic, it looks good on the Rays.

On a night when the leadoff hitter was moved down and the designated hitter was sat down, on a night when the bench was emptied by the ninth inning and the closer was in the shower long before the final pitch, the Rays played as if their season was on the line.

For future reference, it's not a bad way to go.

A team that has struggled to author a signature moment may have finally come up with one. In the season's fifth month, in the game's 13th inning, in a new day's first few minutes, Evan Longoria provided the Rays with their biggest victory at the most critical time.

Trust me, it wasn't pretty. The hitters struck out 16 times and stranded 15 runners. They had the bases loaded with no outs in both the eighth and 10th innings, and failed to score either time. But there was something relentless about the way the Rays played. Something visceral. Something a little more intense than what we have grown used to seeing.

Maybe panic is the wrong word. Maybe urgency is a better fit.

If the Rays somehow pull off a stretch run comeback, remember this game. Remember the moves that preceded it. For this was the moment in the season when the Rays finally acknowledged they had to change their ways.

In a matter of days, manager Joe Maddon has dropped Carlos Peña from the cleanup spot, moved B.J. Upton out of the leadoff spot and, at least temporarily, ordered Pat Burrell to the bench.

Call me an alarmist, but I think this is what anxiety looks like in Maddon's ever-so-calming world.

Time is becoming an enemy of the Rays, and that means patience is no longer an ally. Tampa Bay has played pretty good ball for more than three months, and has very little to show for it. In early August, the Rays are 51/2 games out of first place in the American League East, which is exactly where they were in early May, and early June and early July.

Patience, in this case, was not working. And so the batting order shakeup was not only justified but probably overdue.

"My biggest concern is that I don't want to send the wrong message in the clubhouse. That all of the sudden we're going to try a bunch of different things," Maddon said. "I've always liked the idea of a set lineup as much as possible. I think that's the most productive lineup.

"But as of this point, yes, I felt it was necessary to do it."

The baseball season is far too long to treat it as if it were a daily poll. You cannot change your mind based on the events of a day, a week or, in some cases, a month. That doesn't mean you can't adjust or tweak, but panic and hysteria are no ways to manage.

Yet, even acknowledging that, it is possible Maddon waited too long this time.

As unhappy as Upton seemed to be moving from No. 1 to No. 7 in the lineup, it had to be done. Both for him and the team. As a leadoff hitter, Upton was miscast. In his first at-bat of games, Upton had a .140 batting average this season. That is not a fluke. That is not bad luck. Considering he hit .272 the rest of the game, there had to be some reason why Upton was 12-for-86 leading off games.

"When you're the first hitter, you have to approach it differently. You want to see enough pitches to give the guys behind you an idea of what the pitcher is doing. You're more or less like a guinea pig," Upton said. "You definitely don't want to bail the pitcher out and let him have a 10-pitch first inning, so you go up there wanting to see as many pitches as you can.

"Being the first hitter of the game is totally different from every other at-bat."

If the standings looked different this morning, patience might still have a place in Tampa Bay's plans. After all, the Rays were generously rewarded last October for the faith they showed in Upton during the regular season.

But the Rays cannot afford that luxury in 2009. They began the season in an April hole, and have not been hot enough to catch the Yankees or Red Sox. Unless they're planning on a Boston or New York collapse — and a Texas collapse too, for that matter — they had better plan on playing better than .600 ball in August and September.

And the way things were going, that did not seem possible.

"Consistency from my part is very important for the group," Maddon said. "I also believe flexibility is important. You just have to decide when to put your foot on the gas, or when to take it off a bit."

Today, Longoria put his foot is on the gas.

Which was necessary because the Rays still have a long way to go.

John Romano can be reached at

Homer a blow against dwindling calendar for Tampa Bay Rays 08/04/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 7, 2009 2:49pm]
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