ST. PETERSBURG -- Forget the losing streak.
Forget the blown five-game lead, and forget about some blockbuster trade saving the season.
If the Rays are to remain a contending team in the season's second half, one factor looms above all others.
Tampa Bay's best players have to be their best players.
Seems obvious. Sounds simple. Yet for much of Tampa Bay's remarkable first half, that hasn't been the case. In some ways, it hasn't even been close.
The Rays have gotten this far with a bunch of sidekicks showing up in the hero's role. There is Gabe Gross, with his career .240 batting average delivering winning hits. There is J.P. Howell, who came into the season with a 5-14 record, going 6-0 with a 2.68 ERA. There is Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine, the tail end of the starting rotation, winning more combined games than the top two starters.
Great stories, all of them. Inspirational, entertaining and necessary for a team to make the type of leap Tampa Bay has this season. But, and here's the catch, nobody is going to the movies this weekend expecting Robin to whack the Joker while Batman handles a henchman or two.
For the Rays to hang on, Carlos Pena has to be better. Carl Crawford has to be better. Even B.J. Upton and Scott Kazmir have to be better.
It's not that those four, as a group, have been awful. Upton's numbers are pretty good, and Kazmir just went to his second All-Star Game. The point is the bar is higher for all of them, and they are not yet reaching it.
Here, then, is the case for all four needing to show up big in the next two months.
His first half has brought the F-word into the conversation. No, not that one. In this case, you have to ask if 2007 was really a fluke. Pena has gone from third in the majors in OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) last season to 99th for qualifying players at midseason in 2008.
Granted, it was too much to expect Pena to repeat his 46-homer, 121-RBI performance, but his output is barely average for a first baseman. And definitely not adequate for Tampa Bay's highest-paid player.
The bright spot? In his last 10 games before the break, Pena hit .316 with three homers and nine RBIs, so maybe his best is still to come.
It is easy to build a case for Crawford as the greatest player in the franchise's first decade. When there was little else to cheer about in Tampa Bay, Crawford was always worth the price of admission.
Speed, defense, hitting: He had it all. And for five seasons, he got better and better.
Yet now that the Rays are finally contenders, Crawford has taken a huge step backward. Almost across the board, his offensive numbers are stacking up to be his lowest since his first full season in 2003.
It's not just the batting average that has dipped, but the pop in his bat. Crawford averaged 57 extra-base hits in each of the past four seasons yet is on pace for 36 in 2008.
What more can you expect out of a pitcher who just got a win in the All-Star Game? A little consistency sounds like a reasonable request.
Kazmir was practically unhittable for one month and then was awful in the next month. He went 6-1 with a 1.40 ERA in his first seven starts and 1-4 with a 4.97 ERA in his next seven starts. That may balance out to fairly strong numbers, but a contender has to have more out of its ace.
The Rays need to know they can depend on Kazmir every time he walks to a mound. They don't need shutouts every time out, but it's not too much to expect six or seven strong innings on most nights.
As far as criticism goes, this may qualify as unfair. Upton has only one full season in the big leagues behind him. And he has already shown growth as a hitter, cutting down dramatically on strikeouts and drawing far more walks than last season.
But it is a nod to Upton's immense potential that people inside the organization expected more out of him this season. For a No. 3 hitter, he is neither driving in runs nor hitting for power. His numbers are near the bottom of the league in both categories for a hitter in the third spot in the lineup.
Upton has been one of Tampa Bay's better hitters, but he needs to be better.
Again, it may sound strange to attack the All-Star pitcher. Or the centerfielder leading the team in walks and stolen bases. Or the leftfielder with more runs than anyone on the team.
But the Rays have an opportunity for a special season, which means they need bigger contributions from their special players.
In the first half, the Rays won despite some subpar performances.
If things don't change, they may lose because of those subpar performances.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stats in 2007 and about 60 percent of 2008:
b>BA HR RBI OBP Crawford(2007).315 11 80 .355 (2008).270847.315