ST. PETERSBURG — The moment felt familiar. Like the nudge of a misplaced memory.
There was James Shields, walking off the mound after a long night's work. And there were thousands of Rays fans, rising from their seats to offer applause and approval.
It didn't matter that the Blue Jays had runners on first and third in the top of the eighth. At that moment, it didn't even matter that Tampa Bay's lead would disappear for a short time.
What mattered was the performance of a starting pitcher. And the promise of future days.
For the better part of three months a community has tried to figure out what was missing from these Tampa Bay Rays. We have poked, probed, shook and stared. We have screamed at Dioner Navarro and we have sneered at Pat Burrell.
Yet, as we move toward the season's second half, it is probably time to point at the most obvious explanation of all:
Tampa Bay's strength has become a weakness.
Starting pitching is what set Tampa Bay apart from most of the teams in the American League in 2008. And, so far in 2009, it is what is keeping the Rays from making any kind of charge toward the top of the AL East.
"We haven't been as consistent in our rotation as we've expected," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "Some of it has to do with injuries; in some cases you can point to one or two things and explain it away. But for us to go on a really long, sustained run, it's going to be because of our starting pitchers. We'll only accomplish that because of our starting pitchers.
"And we don't think it's unrealistic that we will go on that run because of how talented they are."
It is not unreasonable to drop the weight of a season on the five starters in the rotation. The Rays have some pop in the lineup, but they were not built around the home run. And the Rays steal more bases than any team in the league, but they were not built around speed.
This team was constructed with starting pitching in mind. It is how the Rays can compete with the Yankees and Red Sox despite having a fraction of their payrolls.
A year ago, this rotation was special. This season, it has been less than average.
The Rays have gone from being near the top of the American League in starters' ERA (3.95) last season to being near the bottom (4.62) in 2009. The starters are not going deep enough. They have not been consistent enough. They have not shined enough.
Manager Joe Maddon says some of the blame should be shared by a defense that has also slipped, but he does not dispute the characterization of a rotation that has disappointed.
"We have to pitch it and catch it better," Maddon said. "If we just remain somewhat status quo offensively, we'll be fine. That's the difference. We're just not as good, as sharp (pitching and fielding) as we were last year.
"To get back to the promised land, we have to pick up those two areas. We're not going back without them."
This may be the best way to explain it:
The Rays were 19-19 last season when they scored two or three runs in a game. That meant, because of the strength of the rotation, the Rays still won 50 percent of the time even when the offense was having a relatively poor night.
Tampa Bay has not been close to that in 2009, even with Tuesday night's 3-1 win in 11 innings. The Rays have gone 4-20 when scoring two or three runs in a game this season. Which means, basically, that the offense has been doing all of the heavy lifting.
And that is no way to defend a pennant.
You might be tempted to assign all of the blame to a handful of pitchers. You could point out that Andy Sonnanstine struggled so much that it cost him a spot on the major-league roster. You could point out that Scott Kazmir would need to throw 20 consecutive shutout innings just to get his ERA down to 5.00. You could say David Price has been a disappointment.
But the truth is, the problems have extended from the No. 1 guy on down. Matt Garza and Shields are near the top of the AL in ERA, but neither has pitched like a true ace. The only starter who has met expectations is Jeff Niemann. That doesn't mean he has been their best pitcher, but he has given the Rays more than they could have expected for a rookie at the No. 5 spot.
Shields, who dropped his ERA to 3.38 Tuesday night, disagrees.
"I think that's unfair. That's definitely unfair," Shields said, when asked about the rotation needing to do more. "We struggled for the first month, but since then we've kept the bullpen fresh. We've been doing our job."
Perhaps I am being too harsh on the starters. Maybe I'm expecting too much.
But I began the season believing the Rays rotation was special.
And, so far, it hasn't seemed that way.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com.