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Injuries give Rays a bigger challenge


So this is what second place looks like, huh?

Ugly sight, isn't it?

It looks a lot like Joe Maddon, aiming his considerable anger toward the Boston dugout. It looks a lot like B.J. Upton, being restrained as he raged in the direction of umpire Paul Emmel after being ejected for arguing a third strike. It looks a lot like Aki Iwamura, spinning in the air after a cheap shot from Boston leftfielder Coco Crisp.

Most of all, it looks like one disappointed Tampa Bay batter after another, skulking back to the dugout after striking out.

Generally speaking, there is nothing wrong with second place, especially for a team that has lived in last. Unless, of course, that team has spent the previous 10 days — and 22 days of the season — in first place. Second place tends to look a bit like a come-uppance, a bit like a put down and a bit like a suggestion that there is nothing at all wrong with a wild card.

In which case, second place looks kind of like the low-rent district, doesn't it?

Oh, it is still early, of course, and the Rays can hoist themselves right back into first place with a victory today. On the other hand, the last 48 hours look like a dandy piece of evidence for those who doubt whether this Rays' team can hold up over the summer, don't they?.

Do woodsheds really come with leftfield walls this large? Wednesday was yet another routine beating at the hands of the Red Sox. Boston has won the past five games these teams have played, and none have caused the Red Sox any particular strain.

Add in injuries — Carlos Pena went on the disabled list Wednesday with a fractured left index finger and Carl Crawford suggested that his right knee will probably cause him pain the rest of the season — and all of the sudden, this season looks like a difficult test for an emerging team.

And, yes, now we will find out about this team.

Suddenly, there are fresh reasons to doubt. The Rays are losing games, they are losing parts, and if they do not hit any better than this, they will soon be losing places in the standings.

Now we will see if they are resilient enough. Now we will see if they are deep enough. Now we will see if they have enough gauze in the training room.

All emerging teams face situations such as this. When a team has come from nowhere, there are a great many people who are convinced they will eventually return there. As Rays designated hitter Cliff Floyd suggested before the game, "about 90 percent of people don't think we belong in first place."

Around the Rays' locker room, there are fresh reasons to doubt. Pena left the locker room with so much wrap around his hand he could have been smuggling out a batting helmet underneath. There is a v-shaped crack in the base segment of his left index finger that will keep him on the disabled list for at least 15 days.

Say what you will about Pena's .227 batting average or his league high 71 strikeouts, but yes, the Rays will miss him. Pena provides some power in the middle of the lineup. Wednesday, the Rays could have used some of that.

Then, there is the persistent ache in Crawford's leg. At least he can play through it, but you have to wonder. When a player who relies on his legs as much as Crawford doubts one of them, how can it not affect him some?

Can the Rays survive this? We will see. Most teams would have trouble if their cleanup hitter and their closer (Troy Percival) were on the disabled list and their star leftfielder was hobbling.

In other words, the Rays could use some pluck. If nothing else, the strange eighth inning suggests that much.

First, there was Upton's meltdown over a called third strike. That was surprising because you would think the Rays would be used to the sight. After all, they strike out a lot. It happened 10 more times against the Red Sox.

Then there was Crisp, who went hard and dirty into Iwamura with his spikes high and his elbows flying. Crisp admitted after the game that he was upset at Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett, who blocked the bag with his knee when Crisp stole a base two innings earlier.

"If you try to hurt me," Crisp said on the Red Sox television network, "I will try to hurt you." Or, perhaps, someone else.

The play left Maddon fuming. He went to the mound, then stared into the Red Sox dugout for a "long-distance exchange" with Crisp.

"I totally felt there was intent to hurt our middle infielder," he said. "There's right and there is wrong and that was wrong."

The debate of right and wrong continues today. So, too, does the struggle for first and second.

As the biggest test of their season continues, the Rays will again search for answers.

Injuries give Rays a bigger challenge 06/04/08 [Last modified: Thursday, June 5, 2008 6:53pm]
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