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Offense might cost Rays shot at playoffs

ST. PETERSBURG

They are falling. It does not matter how hard they flail, and it does not matter how seriously they kick. They are plunging toward Earth, faster all the time, past birds and through clouds. From here, the end looks as if it will be messy.

The Tampa Bay Rays, in first place about 15 minutes ago, are suddenly crashing toward the rocks below. At this point, they seem more intent on catching Baltimore than Boston.

Their season is slipping away, one torturous game after another, and it seems there is little they can do about it.

Except, perhaps, to swing and miss.

The Rays went down again Tuesday night, and it was meekly again. It was a game that was crucial if they wanted to imagine themselves as still in the American League East race, and it was very important if they wanted to stay ahead in the wild-card race. And the Rays whiffed.

They lost 2-0 to the Red Sox, and to tell the truth, they looked like a team that would have been shut out if the game had gone into the weekend. They managed four hits, and only once did they get a runner as far as second base.

And now? Now there are 19 heartbeats left in the season.

How has this happened? How have the Rays turned into one of baseball's worst teams in a matter of three weeks? Why does it suddenly seem as if Josh Freeman is batting cleanup and Willie Taggart is the batting coach?

And why, for crying out loud, is the team battle cry suddenly the beep-beep-beep of a golf cart going in reverse?

After all, as recently as Aug. 24, the season was sailing along wonderfully. The Rays had caught the Red Sox, and they were a full five games up in the wild-card race. Every day was a holiday, and every meal was a banquet, and the playoffs seemed like a sure thing.

Then someone turned off the lights. Since then, the Rays are 4-12, the worst record in the majors over that span. They have averaged 2.6 runs per game. With runners in scoring position, they have hit only .179.

Technically, there is a word for this.

It's "Yuck."

This team was supposed to be better, remember? Finally, the thinking was the Rays had a team that could hit a little. Finally, they could win an occasional 6-5 game. This was supposed to be the Rays' best-hitting team ever, and on nights such as this one, it was supposed to prove it.

"There's not a whole lot you can do right now except keep playing, grinding it out," manager Joe Maddon said. "There's no extra work to be done. Just go out there and play."

Oh, if they know anything, Rays fans know a lot about hitless wonders. Over the years, they have seen Ben Grieve and Vinny Castilla and Mike Kelly.

Remember last year's Rays? They had Ben Francisco and Elliot Johnson and Will Rhymes and Brooks Conrad and Stephen Vogt and Rich Thompson and what little was left of Carlos Peña. It was a mish-mash collection of players who should have been in Triple A instead of in a pennant race. Misdemeanor's Row, you might say.

Ah, but this team was better. It had Evan Longoria, and it had the wonderful rookie Wil Myers. It had the surprising James Loney, and the plucky Ben Zobrist, and Matt Joyce. It had Yunel Escobar and Luke Scott and added Delmon Young. This was the lineup that was what the Hit Show was supposed to be, remember?

Just asking, but these days, can anyone tell the difference?

Suddenly, this team could not hit the ball off a tee. It struggles nightly, as if every hitter has entered the same slump. They cannot avoid hitting into double plays. They have runners thrown out easily at second.

It is an ugly sight, watching a season rush past a team with a bat on its shoulder. Yes, Clay Buchholz was superb Tuesday night, but too many times you felt the Rays were contributing to their own domination with weak at-bats. In a game of this magnitude, wouldn't you have expected more scrap from the home team?

"I want to believe that when it comes to hitting with runners in scoring position, the luck is going to flip back to you," Maddon said. "There has to be a balancing out of the numbers. We've been so unlucky, or not good at it, the last two-three weeks. At some point, it's got to come back to you. I want to believe if we continue to work the at-bats like we have, we're going to break through and get those hits with runners on base."

For the Rays, there is hoping. And there is doing.

In the middle, there is an opportunity getting away. How nice it might be if someone would take a bat and hit it.

Jose Molina exits after striking out with two on in the second.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Jose Molina exits after striking out with two on in the second.

Offense might cost Rays shot at playoffs 09/10/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 11, 2013 10:25am]
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