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Tampa Bay Rays are tenacious about sticking to their plan despite rough start

Signs of pop: Michel Hernandez, right, celebrates his fourth-inning homer with teammate B.J. Upton as the Rays generate 18 hits and 13 runs against the Red Sox in the opener of the four-game series.

Associated Press

Signs of pop: Michel Hernandez, right, celebrates his fourth-inning homer with teammate B.J. Upton as the Rays generate 18 hits and 13 runs against the Red Sox in the opener of the four-game series.

ST. PETERSBURG — And so, for a day, there is no talk of David Price. There is no carping about the lineup needing reshuffling, or the roster needing reshaping. For a day, common sense has made a comeback.

All it took was Matt Garza's rededicated focus and a handful of lucky hits that turned into a four-run rally. Just like that, the Tampa Bay Rays don't look like such slackers anymore.

And this is why it is better not to panic. This is why it is important for a team to resist the temptation to blow up a carefully constructed plan just to pacify that churning feeling in your gut.

Hey, I'm not saying the Tampa Bay Rays haven't stunk. They came by their 8-14 start honestly. The starting pitchers were too inconsistent, and most of the hitters were embarrassing. The Tampa Bay Rays, a team that always did the little things right, were getting the basic things wrong.

So the natural inclination is to pull a Steinbrenner. To grumble, snort and growl. That's the easy route, and it goes over well with the fans. It feels like you're taking a stand, and it looks like you're as angry as the paying customers.

If the manager drops the leadoff hitter, the folks in the upper deck will nod their heads. If the general manager dumps the rightfield platoon, everyone will cheer. There would be a shared sense of fighting against the doldrums.

But, in the end, is the team really better off?

There are a lot of reasons why the Tampa Bay Rays won 97 games last season, and most of them are still in the clubhouse. Maybe B.J. Upton has gotten off to a sorry start, and maybe Matt Garza was struggling before his masterpiece Thursday night, but the Rays are not going to repeat as AL champions if guys like them do not get back on track.

And so patience is not just a virtue, it is a necessity. Right now, it may be the only way the Rays get out of last place, because I don't see many quick fixes that will turn this team's fortunes.

"I would like to believe, after three years here, people would understand that we think of things in advance, and we stick to it," manager Joe Maddon said. "I'm proud to say we're not a knee-jerk kind of a group. We analyze on a daily basis, but we're not into overreacting. Ben Zobrist needs to play the way we've been playing him. Gabe Gross needs to get out there. Gabe Kapler, too. During the offseason we had a bunch of different plans, and we brought in certain people for certain roles.

"If we were winning more, all of this stuff would be considered genius. Right now, it's not because we haven't been winning."

In case you've forgotten, here is what patience can look like for a struggling team:

It looks like the Rays sticking with Dioner Navarro when he hit .227 in 2007, and then getting rewarded with an All-Star season out of their catcher in 2008. It looks like the Rays refusing to move Edwin Jackson out of the rotation when he was 0-8 in mid June 2007, and then seeing him win 19 games over the next season and a half.

This doesn't mean you laugh off an 8-14 start. That's not just a minislump, it's practically an entire month of bad baseball. But there is a difference between a knee-jerk decision and the realization that a major move is necessary. The trick is recognizing where the dividing line resides.

When it comes to Andy Sonnanstine, we may be near that point. He has been ineffective for quite some time, and the Rays could potentially be better with Carlos Hernandez or Wade Davis in that spot in the rotation.

When it comes to Navarro, it is a point worth considering. It's not just that his offense has gone back in the tank, but that his defense is suffering as well. The problem, in that case, is the lack of a proven alternative.

There are some possibilities at Triple A. Price will eventually be here when his command is better. Davis and Hernandez will show up at some point this season. Matt Joyce could be a shot in the arm, but he's not the answer to all of the offense's woes.

In other words, Evan Longoria is no longer waiting in the wings. Longoria was going to immediately make the Rays' lineup better in 2008, and there was very little debate about it.

This time, the options are not as clear cut. Joyce may or may not be better than a Gross/Kapler platoon, but it is not a slam dunk either way. Price has more talent than Sonnanstine, but it's hard to advocate a quick promotion when he is still having pitch-count problems in the minors.

The Rays may eventually have to tweak their plans if Willy Aybar continues to struggle, if the rightfield platoon does not improve and, most noticeably, if Navarro doesn't get his head straight. But May 1 seems a little early to give up on guys who provided an entire year of production in 2008.

"Just because things aren't going the way we thought they would right now, doesn't mean you blow everything up and start all over," Maddon said. "We tend to not do that."

The bottom line is this team is not likely to win 90 or more games unless the offseason blueprint works as planned. So, for now, the Rays need to stick to that plan.

Tampa Bay Rays are tenacious about sticking to their plan despite rough start 04/30/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 4, 2009 3:29pm]

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