PHILADELPHIA — After a World Series game that started later than ever, Tampa Bay's season is beginning to feel the same way.
It's not that hope is lost, but it does feel a little dinged. And optimism is not completely gone, but it is having a hard time finding its way home. Sort of like the Rays hitters.
A miserable Saturday evening gave way to a disappointing Sunday morning when Tampa Bay lost Game 3 of the World Series 5-4 to the Phillies after waiting through a 91-minute rain delay, a 10:06 p.m. starting time, a ninth-inning meltdown and a 1:47 a.m. conclusion.
"It's disappointing, but it's only one loss," rightfielder Gabe Gross said. "I would say we'll come back and get them tomorrow, but we'll come back later today."
So maybe you should be thankful the kids were tucked safely in bed. Perhaps you should be grateful a lot of the East Coast was no longer watching.
Because this felt like an opportunity lost. It felt like destiny changing its mind.
Oh, we've been through this before. Game 4 of the American League Championship Series against the Red Sox comes to mind. But you wonder how many more times the Rays can survive heartache.
"If you're a fan, you have to enjoy these games," Rays utility player Ben Zobrist said. "They're all back and forth. They're all close. We've kept you on the edge of your seat."
The Rays had another chance at an improbable story line in Game 3. After struggling for most of the evening, they got a huge break when umpire Tom Hallion blew a call at first base on a Carl Crawford bunt, jumpstarting Tampa Bay's comeback in the seventh inning.
But the team with impeccable timing blew it at the exact wrong moment this morning. After J.P. Howell hit the leadoff hitter in the ninth, Grant Balfour came in from the bullpen and threw a wild pitch that was followed by catcher Dioner Navarro's throwing error to give the Phillies a man on third with no outs.
From there, the result was pretty much inevitable.
"I tried to do too much," Balfour said. "I tried to go inside and I missed. It was unfortunate. I ended up putting myself in the position where I had to walk the next two guys.
"No excuses. I can only blame myself."
This is worse, much worse, than losing Game 1 of the World Series. As holes go, this one is deep and the dirt is loose.
They're not going to admit it, but the Rays knew a Game 1 loss was a strong possibility. You face an ace like Philadelphia's Cole Hamels, and you figure any victory goes in the good fortune column.
Saturday night's Game 3 was a different proposition. The Rays figured this one was theirs, and how could they not? Tampa Bay had a young, strong pitcher with a 96-mph fastball. Philadelphia had Methuselah.
Phillies starting pitcher Jamie Moyer is nearly 46, and he has the 83-mph fastball to prove it. He won 16 games in the regular season but has been a liability in October. Philadelphia's first two losses in the postseason came with Moyer on the mound, and opponents hit .435 against him.
In other words, the Rays expected to beat Moyer and the Phillies on Saturday night. Third baseman Evan Longoria as much as said it after Game 2 when he broke from the usual bland protocol and said he liked Tampa Bay's pitching matchups for the next two games.
What hurts is the Rays had their chances. In both the sixth and the eighth they had a runner on base with their two best power hitters coming out of the dugout with bats in hand.
This was the moment of glory. This was the comeback you had been plotting all evening.
Instead, Carlos Pena looked at strike three in the sixth and had a check-swing strike three in the eighth. Longoria's high fly ball to leftfield got held up by the wind and fell about 6 feet shy of a home run in the sixth, and he grounded out in the eighth.
By contrast, Philadelphia's Nos. 3 and 4 hitters — Chase Utley and Ryan Howard — hit back-to-back home runs, to put the Phillies up 4-1 in the sixth.
The sequence is not just critical, it is also symbolic. Longoria and Pena — Tampa Bay's Nos. 3 and 4 hitters — have gone missing this World Series. Between them, they are Oh-for-22.
Of course, they are not the only offenders. A team that built its reputation on getting big hits at big moments has suddenly lost its sense of timing. The Rays have scored nine runs in the Series, and six have come on groundouts or sacrifice flies.
It's a nice little display of fundamental baseball, but this ain't 1908. The Rays are going to have to start putting together some legitimate rallies.
"That gives me a pretty good amount of hope," Gross said. "We've been in all three games. We lost this one in the ninth. And we haven't swung the bats at all. It's going to come around for us."
Not that many people were awake to even notice on the East Coast.
I suppose if you were willing to ignore the steroid era and quit in the middle of an All-Star Game, the idea of a World Series slumber party sounds pretty good.
Since 2000, the average World Series game has taken 3:45 to play. So, even though this one actually was played relatively quickly, MLB officials had to start the game assuming it was not going to end until somewhere around 1:50 a.m.
Which is okay if you're the sort of person who waits until the middle of the night before picking up War and Peace. But if you're a Rays or Phillies fan with children at home, you were probably carrying them to bed somewhere around the third inning.
Time and again, the commissioner's office will tell you baseball's greatest concern is for its fans and the integrity of the game. And then they elbow you in the gut to pick up a nickel on the ground.
Seriously, the only people happy about playing a game this late were Fox executives, and folks in L.A. without a date on Saturday night.
What everyone else missed was the best game so far in the 2008 World Series.
And perhaps Tampa Bay's biggest letdown.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org