KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The purpose of the meeting was not to point fingers. Joe Maddon did not want to yell at anybody, he was not demanding any explanations, he was not interested in getting to the bottom of the situation.
The purpose of the meeting was more pragmatic. More forward-thinking. When he called the players together to go over some housekeeping details before the All-Star break last week, Maddon took the opportunity to get a simple message across:
Stop giving games away.
He was not questioning anybody's effort, although that would have been within his right. He was not suggesting that players go easy on the bars and clubs on the road, although that's not a bad idea. He wasn't even insinuating that anyone had done anything wrong.
But the Rays manager had seen too many losses against too many lesser teams. The Rays are one of the stronger teams in the American League, and it's time they start playing like bullies.
"He was just basically getting the message across that if we want to get back to where we've been, we have got to start beating these teams more regularly," said centerfielder B.J. Upton. "Not to take anything away from any other team, because obviously you can be beaten on any given day, but we feel like in this clubhouse, with the ballclub we have, that it shouldn't happen. And if it does happen, it should be a lot less than what we've seen. It's just happened too much this season.
"But the good thing is that that was the first half. We still have an entire second half to get back to being the kind of ballclub we were last season."
The kind of ballclub the Rays were in 2008 was unmerciful. For the most part, they won when they were supposed to win. They did not have letdowns, and they did not overlook weaker teams. Against teams with losing records in '08, the Rays were a phenomenal 42-19 (.689), with a winning record in the season series against each one of those opponents.
Tampa Bay has not been as emphatic this season. The Rays have a losing record against Baltimore. And Cleveland. And Oakland. Overall, the Rays are 23-17 (.575) against losing teams, which is about five victories off last season's pace.
"Those are the kind of things that have put us behind the eight-ball a bit," Maddon said Thursday. "It really has. There's no denying that."
The problem has been most apparent on the road. The Rays are a combined 3-9 in Baltimore, Oakland and Cleveland, the three last-place teams in the AL. And now the Rays are beginning a three-game series against the Royals, who have been even worse than the Orioles and Athletics.
"If you look at some of the teams that have been beating us, we match up better at every position on the field and one through five in the rotation and in the bullpen," reliever Joe Nelson said. "But the game doesn't work that way. Even if you're the better team, you still have to execute. And we haven't done that against some of the teams that, on paper, we should be beating.
"We just need to take care of business, which was Joe's major point. Beat the teams you should and compete with the teams you can. Basically, that was his message. And when he talks to the whole group like that, you want to take in everything he says because he doesn't just talk for the sake of talking."
A game in April counts just as much as a game in July, but time is now becoming an enemy of the Rays. When you are chasing the Red Sox and Yankees, you cannot afford to give away a couple of home games against the Athletics, as the Rays did just before the All-Star break. At this point, you start looking at every loss and wondering if it's the one that will keep you out of October.
With 73 games remaining it is not all that rare for a team to make up a 31/2-game deficit in the wild card, or even a 61/2-game deficit in a division. In the last decade, 14 teams have come from at least 31/2 games back at this point in the season.
The one caveat is that it doesn't happen much in the AL East. The Yankees came from behind in the 2007 wild-card picture, but the other 13 teams have all done it from outside the AL East.
So what needs to happen for the Rays to pull it off?
The rotation needs to get deeper into games. Tampa Bay's starting pitchers are supposed to be as strong as any in the AL, yet they are in the bottom half of the league in ERA and innings pitched. The bullpen has been extremely good, but it cannot continue at this pace.
The road record has to turn around. The Rays will not dig themselves out of this hole if they continue playing at a .409 clip outside of Tropicana Field.
And the Rays cannot continue losing to the bottom dwellers of the American League. Ten of the next 17 games are against teams that have losing records.
Beginning tonight, things have to change.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org