And so the search begins again. This time, it resumed on a cold, windy morning during a forgettable game in a small stadium away from home.
It was here the Tampa Bay Rays began to look, once again, for an ace.
Provided, of course, they have one in their employ.
By now, the Rays have established the impressive level of talent in their rotation. No one doubts that. Their pitchers have good stuff, they have good numbers, and they have good depth. The older starters are young enough, and the younger ones are mature enough. No one should suggest returning any of them for a refund.
Ah, but does anyone see one of those take-command, make-the-batter's-mouth-go-dry, polish-the-Cy Young kind of pitchers? Do the Rays have one of those?
And while we're at it, do they need one?
A dominator would be nice, of course, and given all of the hubbub over the young arms in recent seasons, you might have hoped the Rays would have developed such a pitcher by now. Given his work ethic, given the way he eats innings, perhaps you figured it would be James Shields. Given the electricity in his fastball, given the way he dominates left-handed hitters, perhaps you figured it would be Matt Garza. Given the talent in the young pitchers on the roster, perhaps you thought it might be David Price or Jeff Niemann or Wade Davis.
If you think of it like a game show — Who Wants to Be an Ace? — Wednesday's spring training opener at Ed Smith Stadium was a chance to see the Rays' two veteran contestants, Shields and Garza. Both of them pitched briefly. Both of them pitched well before the batting practice began in a 12-2 loss. Still, neither of them had a winning record last year, so it's hard to anoint as ace.
"Every pitcher wants that title," Garza said. "I want it. I'm pretty sure Shields wants it. I'm pretty sure Price wants it. Niemann, Davis. (Andy) Sonnanstine.
"We have five guys who are potential aces. Someone's going to step in sooner or later. It's whoever catches that good break, that good run."
Could it be Garza? Maybe. After all, opposing batters hit only .233 against him, fourth-best in the American League. Garza, 26, struck out 189 batters. His ERA was only 3.95. So how does he wind up 8-12? Part of it is a lack of run support. On the other hand, 79 walks to the opposing team doesn't help.
Could it be Shields? Maybe. But Shields, 28, gave up the second-most hits in the American League last year. He was still a consistent pitcher, but he allowed more walks, more runs and more homers than in seasons past. In the second half of the season, his ERA was 5.16.
Could it be Price, who finished the year the way some believed he would have started it? Could it be Niemann, who by the end of the season might have been the Rays' best pitcher? Could it be Davis, who showed what a competitive cuss he could be late in the season?
According to the Rays, it might not have to be any of them.
"I don't believe in the concept of ace," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "You can't win with just an ace. You have to win with four to five pretty darn good pitchers. That's what we have. A guy who is head and shoulders above the rest is nice to have, but for us to have an ace be head and shoulders above this bunch, you'd have to be talking about one of the pitchers of a generation, because this bunch is pretty good."
Said Shields: "I don't think we need an ace. I think we need leaders."
As the Rays enter the season, it is the depth of their pitching staff rather than the brilliance of their ace that allows them to think good things are possible.
"I really don't think about one guy," manager Joe Maddon said. "I think about all five. All five of these guys could log 200 innings. When you think about it, one guy may not be as good as we think. But if we have four of the five play well, we should be pretty good."
Still, it would be nice to have that pitcher who stops the bleeding, who ends the losing streak, who restores order to the clubhouse. It would be nice to have a pitcher who can make a one-run lead stand up because, by golly, that's all he has. It would be nice if one of the pitchers developed into a guy who made his lineup believe its chances were better with him on the mound, and who made the opposing lineup believe the opposite.
Think of it like this. It is September, and the Rays need a big victory. Whom do you want to see on the mound? On this team, who is the trump card? Shields? Garza? Price? Niemann? Davis?
"Maybe," Garza said, "we can have a different ace each month. That would be outstanding."