ST. PETERSBURG — The clubhouse was as quiet as a stilled heartbeat. It was almost time for the team to take the field, but the room was a ghost town. A season had died young, and even the players who lingered in the nearly empty room spoke in the low tones of mourners paying their final respects.
It was over. The prize had been lost.
It was a strange realization. For 484 games in a row, every game had mattered for the Rays. For three years, from the first day of the season to the last, every game had meant something. The playoffs. The division title. Something.
Not Tuesday. This was the sound of inconsequence. The most frustrating, maddening, irritating, heartbreaking, anger-provoking, health-wrecking season in Rays history had ended two games short of the finish line, and now, there was nothing more to do but to play it out and go home.
They let the season get away. For months, perhaps for years, the realization will gnaw at them. They had one of the best pitching staffs in decades, and it didn't matter. They finished the season as one of the hottest teams in baseball, and it didn't matter. James Shields was marvelous in perhaps his last start as a Ray, striking out a team-record 15 and allowing only two hits, and it didn't matter except to remind you of why this team won't be playing beyond tonight.
In the end, the Rays were not good enough.
And isn't that an awful epitaph for a season?
How does this happen? How does a team have arguably the best starter and the best closer in major-league baseball, and still miss the postseason? How can there be more playoff teams than ever, and yet, this pitching-rich team will not be among them?
The Rays lost this season in so many ways. In some ways, it's like one of those Agatha Christie novels where everyone did it.
How did the Rays lose? They lost because, collectively, they could not hit a fly with a swatter. For the season, the Rays played 46 games in which they scored two runs or less; they won only four of those.
How did the Rays lose? They lost because their hitters recorded almost as many strikeouts as their pitchers. Their total of 1,315 is the third-most in American League history.
How did the Rays lose? They lost because of the pain in the back of Evan Longoria's left leg. How devastating was it that Longoria missed 85 games? Consider this: In his 72 starts, the Rays were 46-26. Without him, they were 41-44. There were other injuries, too. The Rays were 8-15 when Matt Joyce was on the disabled list. They were 6-8 without Jeremy Hellickson. They were 14-15 without Jeff Keppinger.
"If Evan hadn't missed three months, and if I would have 600 at-bats, we would have walked away with it," designated hitter Luke Scott said. "That's in my heart. It's just my opinion, but I think we would have walked away with 100 victories."
Where did the Rays lose? They lost it in the American League Central, where they were only 16-18 this year. They lost it in interleague play, where they were 9-9. They lost it in one-run games, where they were 21-27. They lost it in extra innings, where they were 5-7. They lost it with five 1-0 defeats in a two-month span, including Tuesday's loss.
They lost it in the front office back in January, when signing Carlos Peña and Scott sounded like a grand idea. They lost it in the field, where they committed a league-worst 114 errors. They lost it in Kansas City when they were swept by the Royals, and in St. Petersburg when they were swept by the Mets and the White Sox.
They lost it against the Mariners when Peña threw a victory into rightfield instead of to first. They lost it against the Yankees when Elliot Johnson threw one wild left toward the plate. They lost it against the Orioles when Rich Thompson was thrown out after breaking too far from third.
They lost it from the left side of the plate, where Peña, Scott and Joyce struggled. They lost it by giving too many major-league at-bats to too many minor-league hitters. They lost it when they went 1-5 in Baltimore and New York on the most important road trip of the year.
Maybe, they lost it when Joe Maddon decided to watch a movie late Monday night. It was Titanic. Sometimes, fate makes its own punch lines.
In a season this gut-wrenching, a team doesn't lose it all at once. It ebbs away, a game a time, one misplay after another. People keep talking about how much time remains, and before you know it, it all slips away.
For the Rays, and for their fans, this one is going to sting for a while. There has never been such a gap between the good of a team and the bad. The pitchers were capable of throwing the ball all the way to the World Series. The hitters were lucky they didn't lose 100 games.
It should have been more, darn it. For the Rays, that is the worst part of this season.
It should have lasted longer. It should have finished better. Even with all of the flaws, it should have mattered more.