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Tampa Bay Rays' bats could shatter an otherwise solid season

ST. PETERSBURG — This isn't to say that Manny Ramirez wouldn't have caused headaches. He's moody and old and occasionally disinterested. One of these days, scientists are going to discover squirrels inside of his skull.

That said, could the Rays please claim Manny one more time?

You know, just to be sure the White Sox are serious about him.

Man, could the Rays use Manny. Or any other hitter who can make an opposing pitcher's heart flutter on his way to the plate. I know, I know. When a team signs on for a dose of Manny, it is signing up to battle a whole dugout full of dragons, and when his stay is over, the biggest question in town will be whether he was worth the trouble.

That said, Manny can hit, and the Rays cannot. Put it this way: Once Brad Hawpe, the Rays' consolation prize off the waiver wire, arrives in town, he might hit first, fifth and eighth. All in the same game.

And furthermore, help.

Once again, the Rays' bats turned into small, harmless pieces of kindling in Friday night's 3-1 loss to a Red Sox team so stubborn it does not realize it is far too beaten up to continue to be a factor.

Yet, there the Red Sox were, reminding the Rays they are not in one, but two, playoff races, and the second one of these, the one for the AL wild card, isn't over, either.

There are nights like this, and they come around far too often, that demonstrate just how fragile an otherwise terrific season can be. Try as I might, I cannot get over the image of the playoffs being a giant pinata, and the Rays hitters are gathered underneath flailing away at it with their bats, and still, they cannot make a dent.

This is not a secret. For months now, the hitting of the Rays has been their most dramatic shortcoming, the biggest reason this team still might fall short of the playoffs. They can pitch it, and they can catch it, but for crying out loud, they cannot hit it.

Did you see the way Boston's Jon Lester made the Rays' bats look as if the batters were swinging with sections of garden hose? It was as if the Rays had two strikes (and when you consider all the first and third strikes that were taken, they might as well have). On the bases, it was as if there was an extra bag or two along the way. Home plate seemed as if it was somewhere up a steep hill.

And along the way, the Rays had three hits, the 11th time this season they have had three or fewer, the most in the majors. They struck out 14 times. They scored one run. Unearned.

Sigh.

Given the feast-or-famine lineup of the Rays, you have seen this too many times. Friday night was the 44th time in 128 games the Rays have been held to three runs or fewer. They have lost 35 of those games. When a team pitches this well, when it plays this kind of defense, wouldn't you have thought it would have more 3-1 or 2-0 victories?

The problem is the calendar. It is darned-near September, and of the 34 games that are left, the Rays have a dozen against the Yankees and the Red Sox. That's going to mean a lot of games against quality starters, nights when the Rays will have to scuffle and scratch for runs.

This is who they are, after all. Going into Friday night's game, eight of the Rays' nine hitters were hitting .265 or less. The lone exception was Evan Longoria, who hit into a double play with two on in the first inning, struck out with two on in the fourth and struck out with two on in the sixth. Add another strikeout in the ninth, and it was a particularly frustrating night.

Oh, you can grumble about hitting coach Derek Shelton all you want — and personally, I've always wanted to start a column with "Darn that Shelton! It's Shelton's fault!" — but that's just a misplaced howl by frustrated fans.

Ask yourself this: How many Rays hitters would you suggest are really underachieving? If you look at their resumes, there aren't many. Put it this way: To turn this a team of .280 hitters, you don't need a hitting coach. You need a magician.

No offense to hitting coaches, who spend their days trying to help a hitter find his stroke. In the end, however, it's the hitter's stroke. It's like being Joe Montana's quarterback coach. You're there for a little feedback, and you're there for a lot of drill work, but you aren't in charge of telling him how to throw the ball.

Same with hitters. Once they reach the plate, it's out of the hitting coach's hands. The best hitting coach in the world isn't going to turn Joe the Plumber into Joe the DiMaggio.

And so the Rays swing on with broken bats. There will be no quick fixes. There will be no rescue rangers.

Some nights, there will simply be the sound of splinters.

Gary Shelton can be reached at (727) 893-8805.

Tampa Bay Rays' bats could shatter an otherwise solid season 08/27/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 28, 2010 12:17am]
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