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John Romano: Tampa Bay Rays fulfilling their destiny by flailing

ST. PETERSBURG — The moment is ripe for pointing fingers.

To shout at the opening day starter who lost his grip when it mattered most. To shake your head at the baserunner who inexplicably tried to steal second when it mattered least.

This is what September brings, and this is what a pennant race does to a fan base.

It takes small events in the 1,395th inning of a season and makes them seem as if the entire calendar was wasted by one pitch, one error, one decision.

The reality is more complex, and the truth is less dramatic.

For if the Rays' season ends in frustration — and that looks more likely today than any time in the past week — it will be for the reason you always feared:

They do not have enough quality hitters.

That was your suspicion in April, it was your frustration in July, and it is your freakin' nightmare in the waning days of September.

The Rays have lost four of their past five games and scored one, two, two and zero runs in those efforts. A week earlier they lost three games and scored three, two and two runs. The 10 days before that, they lost three games while scoring zero, two and two runs.

That is not a team that is choking.

That is a team fulfilling its destiny.

"That is who we are. That's who we are," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "If we don't outpitch them and get a couple of clutch hits, it's a very difficult night for us."

At the pace they are going, the Rays will score 102 runs fewer than they did in 2010. That is not an insignificant number. They will set a franchise record for allowing the fewest runs in a season, but they could be shut out of the postseason because the offense was lacking.

There have been nights when the lineup featured so many guys below the Mendoza line that it would have taken a search party to bring anybody home.

"It's tough," Maddon said. "There's a lot of pressure on the pitching and the defense on a nightly basis because we have to be run preventers. And we have been. But at some point you just have to be able to step up and score enough runs to beat some better pitchers."

Should you have been surprised by what happened Friday night?

I mean, you've seen it before. Seen it at Tropicana Field. Seen it at Yankee Stadium. Probably have seen it in your sleep.

This is simply the way the roster is constructed. It is cheaper and easier to develop a pitching rotation than a lineup of power hitters, and so the Rays try to beat the heavyweights of the American League East by being counterpunchers.

It worked in 2010 when they scored fewer runs than the Yankees and Red Sox, and still won a division. It worked in 2008 when they scored fewer runs than half the American League and still won a division.

And it could have worked in 2011, but the Rays have had too many things go wrong with the offense. They have not gotten the production expected at shortstop or catcher. They have not gotten the power expected at first base. They did not get anything from Manny Ramirez.

And so now they are down to the final five games of the season, and the heartbeat is beginning to falter.

A stretch run that was looking magical at 29-15 earlier this week has now stumbled to a 1-4 stretch just as the rest of the baseball world has tuned in to watch.

Both the Rays and Blue Jays played night games on Thursday and traveled overnight to Tampa Bay, but only one team looked sluggish by the ninth inning Friday.

"I know they came in at 4:30 in the morning," Maddn said. "We came in at 4 o'clock, but we've been playing under a lot more emotion than they have, so there's all of that to be considered. But there's no excuses to be made. No excuses at all."

So here's the bottom line:

Boston's magic number is down to three for a share of the wild card and four to clinch it. That means the Rays either have to win the rest of their games or pray the Red Sox continue to play below .500.

Can it happen? Sure. As ugly as Tampa Bay's offense has been, Boston's pitching has looked even worse in recent weeks.

The Rays may even have caught a break with Boston having a game rained out in New York on Friday night. The Red Sox had planned on Jon Lester starting two of their final six games, but this means Lester will get only one start or pitch on short rest in the finale.

So how do the Rays do it?

The cliche is one day at a time.

The reality is one hit at a time. And unfortunately, that's the way they play around here.

John Romano: Tampa Bay Rays fulfilling their destiny by flailing 09/23/11 [Last modified: Saturday, September 24, 2011 6:11pm]
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