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Loss of veteran leadership finds Tampa Bay Rays missing a little magic

So much has changed in barely a year. The standings. The atmosphere. The feeling you were witnessing history.

The Rays of 2008 were an extraordinary story, one of the greatest out-of-nowhere tales ever written. The manager was unconventional, the lineup seemed unremarkable and, yet, the number of comebacks seemed almost unbelievable.

At times, it was as if we were watching a ballclub beyond compare.

And maybe, in a way, we were.

"We had a great team, but we had an even better clubhouse. I don't think the atmosphere in that clubhouse can ever be duplicated," said outfielder Jonny Gomes, now with the Reds. "There were a lot of guys in there who had come up together, had survived all of those bad times, and the club added just that little bit of veteran leadership we needed.

"I wish we could have stayed together at least one more year. You look at it like a pickup basketball game. A 5-on-5 game. The winning team gets to stay on the court. You get to the World Series, you would think you'd want to run it back out there with the exact same team. But I know it's a business. I understand that. I've got nothing but respect for the people in that front office.

"But it would have been nice to have one more shot at it."

If there is anything to be gained from the frustration of 2009, it is a greater appreciation for the team the Rays were in 2008.

What made that team unique was an uncanny ability to rise to the moment. That's not to say they weren't talented, because they were. The '08 Rays had wonderful pitching, excellent defense and just enough offense to reach the World Series.

But that team was far greater than its individual parts.

Here's another way to look at it:

Judging strictly by numbers, this Rays team should be virtually as good as last season. The pitching and defense are slightly worse, but the offense is slightly better. The '08 Rays outscored the opposition by 0.64 runs per game. The '09 Rays are outscoring teams by 0.62 runs per game. Yet the '08 team won 97 games, and this team is on pace to win 88.

So what's the difference?

Basically, it comes down to timing. A starting pitcher immediately giving runs back. A hitter striking out at the exact wrong moment. Failing to get the tail end of a big double play. These guys are world-beaters in a blowout, but they have struggled in pressure situations.

So does that mean the current Rays are not responding to pressure? Not necessarily. It could just be the randomness of numbers. Or it could be that the '08 Rays were remarkably adept at playing their best when it mattered most.

That team won 21 games in its last at-bat. These Rays have won nine.

That team was 29-18 in one-run games. These Rays are 17-21.

"We had terrific chemistry, and that does a lot for a team," said Cliff Floyd, now on the disabled list with the Padres. "We had a lot of guys that grew up overnight last year, and a lot of guys who helped them grow. Guys like (Troy) Percival and (Eric) Hinske and (Trever) Miller. Those are the guys who ran the clubhouse. They made it easier for the manager, the coaches, the clubhouse guy, the travelling secretary. They taught the players how to be professionals. You need those kind of guys on a team.

"And you need a guy like Gomes on your team. A guy who is still cracking jokes and making everybody laugh when you've lost five in a row. Everybody played a role on that team. That's what made it so special."

For the most part, the '08 Rays returned intact. Four of the five starters in the rotation. Seven of the eight positions on the field. Floyd, Gomes, Hinske, Miller, Rocco Baldelli and Edwin Jackson were the most notable departures. Some were money issues, some were performance reasons.

But if you look at the team on paper, the Rays had a strong offseason. They should have been better in '09 than they were in '08. Except Scott Kazmir bombed. And B.J. Upton slumped. And Dioner Navarro regressed. And Pat Burrell disappointed.

You could blame it on a World Series hangover; manager Joe Maddon thinks that was the problem during a horrible April. You could blame it on old injuries that might have impacted mechanics; that's a possibility for Kazmir and Upton. You could blame it on a seeming lack of fire or urgency; that list is too long to delve into.

The bottom line is the team we are watching today is slightly different from the team we saw last season. And it shows.

"The one thing that the guys upstairs on the computers can't assess is clubhouse chemistry. They can look at all the numbers they want, but chemistry in the clubhouse is a huge deal," said Hinske, now with the Yankees. "Everyone on that team got along from Day 1. Nobody clashed. We just wanted to shock the world, and we went out every day with that kind of attitude. We used it as fire.

"I can't speak for them this year; they might have a great clubhouse.

"I just know it was special last year."

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Loss of veteran leadership finds Tampa Bay Rays missing a little magic 08/30/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 31, 2009 12:14am]
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