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Rays have lost fighting spirit

BOSTON — Understand, there is no shame in being caught from behind by the Red Sox.

Boston has the bigger payroll and the greater pedigree, and most of the world has probably assumed the defending World Series champions would eventually end up on top of the American League East.

But there is considerable shame in the way the Rays are allowing this to happen.

No matter how you frame it, the Rays are giving the division away. For five months, they were the best team in baseball, and they have allowed much of that prestige to unravel in eight September days.

Trust me, this is not a question of semantics. It matters whether the Red Sox take the division, or the Rays surrender it. And, as of this morning, the white flag is halfway up the pole.

"No one is coming in here with a different attitude," designated hitter Rocco Baldelli said. "We knew this was going to be a tough part of our schedule. That's just the reality of it. That's what we have to deal with. If you ask every guy in this clubhouse, they'll tell you we'll be fine."

When last seen in this town, the Rays were the angry upstarts. Throwing brushbacks, punches and accusations, reveling in this new bad boy persona even as they fell out of first in June.

Now, they look like pacifists. They strike out, they walk to the dugout, they act forlorn. I'm not suggesting they throw helmets or tantrums, but they might want to acknowledge this looks bad.

Think about it; this is not a team that has thrived because of numbers or stars. There is no Cy Young contender, and no MVP candidate in the Rays clubhouse. Tampa Bay moved to the top of the standings because they did one thing really well:

They won close games.

Guys like Gabe Gross and Willy Aybar and Eric Hinske have been heroes along the way. The Rays were winning because everybody was stepping up. And now they are losing because no one is stepping up.

"We've just played two good teams and lost … and that happens," manager Joe Maddon said. "Of course right now it's going to be questioned in a little more detail, and I understand that. But I like the way we're playing."

Since spring training, Maddon has preached the importance of treating every game exactly the same. It's a smart philosophy, and it has served the Rays well for much of the year.

But you have to wonder if it is beyond the ability of young players to ignore a loss today the same way they did in May or June or July.

"We lost seven straight right (before) the All-Star break and came back and played the best baseball of the year right after that," Baldelli said. "We knew this was going to be a tough road trip, and we just have to finish it up strong."

It's true, as Maddon and the players say, that they have not been awful lately. The starting pitchers have had a 2.91 ERA in the past five games. The offense has a .268 batting average in September.

So you can rationalize it any way you like. You can point out New York, Toronto and Boston are all among the best teams in the American League. You can say the Rays hobbled into September with Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria on the disabled list. You can even claim they had a chance to win several of these games.

But even if you are willing to cede all of those explanations, it doesn't change the fact that the Rays have lost five games off their lead in eight days. And, worst of all, it's not going to get any easier.

The Rays have five more games in Boston and New York this week. They still have the Red Sox and Twins coming to Tropicana Field next week.

Their third baseman and leftfielder haven't played in weeks. The centerfielder left Monday's game with a muscle cramp. The backup catcher is hurting and the closer has turned undependable.

"We've just run into a little bit of a snag hitting-wise, and when you don't hit, all of the sudden everybody wants to magnify the negativity about it," Maddon said. "Don't become confused. We're playing well right now, we're just not hitting."

For much of the year, the Rays looked like improbable contenders. And now, at the most critical moment, they are playing that way.

They insist it is not the pressure of being in first place that is making them lose.

We'll soon find out if that is true, because they won't have that pressure much longer.

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

Rays have lost fighting spirit 09/08/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 11, 2008 7:02am]
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