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Starting Kelly Shoppach was biggest slipup for Tampa Bay Rays

ST. PETERSBURG

And so the 2010 season ended for the Rays at 11:08 p.m.

At least that will be the official time of death going forward in baseball's record books.

In years to come, Tampa Bay fans will always wonder if the demise wasn't sometime sooner. Like early Tuesday afternoon when manager Joe Maddon filled in his lineup card with Kelly Shoppach's name. Or maybe early last week when the Rays front office decided the postseason roster would include Shoppach instead of Dioner Navarro.

Please, do not get the idea that Shoppach was the sole reason the Rays lost Game 5 of the American League division series 5-1 to the Rangers on Tuesday night. The list of Rays blunders was long, and the number of ineffective at-bats was even longer.

No single player can be at fault when an offense goes as silent as Tampa Bay's did in Games 1, 2 and 5 of this series. The Rays scored two runs in three games at Tropicana Field, and never led for a single moment.

So, yes, the failure was collective and it was complete.

But when this game is recalled in bar rooms, playgrounds and nightmares, chances are Shoppach's name will be spoken first.

Just as every conquest needs a hero, you can bet that every failure requires a culprit. And judging from the boos that bounced off the stadium's roof on Tuesday night, the guy in shinguards and a mask has forever been assigned the antagonist's role for 2010.

Part of it was because he played so poorly in Game 5. His throwing error allowed the go-ahead run to score in the fourth, and his continued refusal to block the plate helped the next run get across too.

But the dissatisfaction goes deeper than that. For a team with little discretionary cash, Shoppach was one of the major acquisitions for Tampa Bay last winter. And his season fell far, far short of expectations.

In that sense, Tuesday night's finale felt more like confirmation than condemnation.

So why was Shoppach in the lineup?

Better yet, why was he on the postseason roster?

"That's an easy one to talk about," Maddon said afterward, "but I feel very confident about the decisions we made."

Maddon's point was that the Rays won 96 games and the toughest division in baseball with this very specific catcher platoon. After Navarro was sent to the minors early in the summer, Shoppach was the catcher against left-handed pitchers and John Jaso against right-handers.

The problem is that Shoppach barely held up his end of the bargain.

He wasn't good at throwing out runners. His caught stealing percentage of .171 was one of the lowest in the American League, and the worst among Rays catchers.

He didn't seem to be particularly good at handling the staff either. Rays pitchers had a 4.35 ERA when Shoppach was behind the plate, which was far worse than either Jaso or Navarro.

As for his offense? In the history of Major League Baseball, no player had ever struck out more than 70 times while getting fewer than 160 at-bats in a season before Shoppach did it this season (71 Ks in 158 at-bats).

And the trend continued in this series.

Because Texas threw left-handers in three games, Shoppach got the majority of the playing time. At the plate, he went 0-for-9 with three strikeouts. But that was nothing compared to his defense Tuesday night.

The Rangers made it clear they had zero fear of Shoppach behind the plate. In the first four innings, the Rangers attempted to steal seven times, though most of the attempts were thwarted by balls being put in play.

Maddon said the stolen bases were more an indication of the Rangers running on pitcher David Price but, at the very least, Shoppach failed to provide any deterrent. The Rangers won by running past startled Tampa Bay players at every opportunity. And, as the catcher in charge of slowing baserunners down, Shoppach was overmatched.

"We understood that coming in," Shoppach said of Texas' aggressive baserunning. "We do the best we can to hold them on, keep them close. That's how they got here this year."

And it is how they took the lead in Game 5. After the Rays had tied the score in the bottom of the third, the Rangers went right back on top when Nelson Cruz doubled and then tried to steal third base. Shoppach's throw sailed into leftfield, and Cruz came home easily. As it turned out, the Rays trailed for the rest of the season.

"Just made a bad throw," Shoppach said. "I saw Cruz all day, and I just got locked in on (Evan Longoria) running to the base instead of just throwing it to the base. Made a mistake. I was trying to make a play, and I didn't."

Navarro spent most of the season in the minors, and is even worse with a bat in his hands than Shoppach, but Rays pitchers clearly prefer throwing to Navarro than the other two catchers. Navarro is better at throwing out baserunners, he is better at blocking pitches and he is better calling games.

The point is Navarro at least brought some value defensively.

Which, in retrospect, the Rays could have used on the season's final day.

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

Starting Kelly Shoppach was biggest slipup for Tampa Bay Rays 10/13/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 13, 2010 12:13pm]

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