From where the Rays stood Tuesday, losing to the Orioles 1-0 in their first meaningless game in three years, the immediate future didn't look so good.
Simply, the playoffs start Friday and they won't be in them.
"The overriding thought is that we're good enough to be there, and we're not," manager Joe Maddon said. "And that's the part that's difficult. … We're playing at the top of our game right now, and I've got to go home and barbecue steak."
Officially eliminated when the A's clinched the final American League playoff spot early Tuesday morning, the Rays soon after tonight's finale will shift focus to making sure this doesn't happen again, or at least not like this, failing — among Maddon's "mortal sins" — to capitalize on a historically good pitching performance.
And there was not a better example than Tuesday night, when James Shields threw a spectacular game — a team-record 15 strikeouts, two hits, no walks — and lost.
"The crime of the year,'' Maddon said.
The Rays feel not only left out but that they missed out on a great opportunity to play deep into October.
"Do you want to go into the playoffs with our kind of pitching staff?" Shields said. "Of course you do."
So what do the Rays have to do to get back to the postseason?
Make their pitch
The Rays go into the final game leading the majors with a 3.21 ERA (lowest in the AL in 22 years) and .228 opponents average (lowest in the DH era) and the AL with a record 1,373 strikeouts. They have allowed three or fewer earned runs in a major-league-most 101 games, three or fewer overall an AL-high 88 times.
So when could one reasonably expect to see a pitching performance that good again?
"Hopefully next year," Maddon said. "You'd like to believe that's going to show up again."
The Rays will have the opportunity, once they pick up Shields' $10.25 million option, to keep the rotation intact and maintain the depth they relish, though the lure of trading one, or two, starters from their stock of eight to boost the offense will be at least enticing.
The bullpen is more likely to look differently. The Rays have a bargain-priced option on closer and team MVP Fernando Rodney ($2.5 million) and control of Jake McGee and Wade Davis, but Joel Peralta, J.P. Howell and Kyle Farnsworth can all be free agents. And there is some thought that bullpens are better shuffled each year anyway.
The bad news this season was the consistent inconsistency of the offense as the Rays had the second-most strikeouts in the AL, third-lowest average and on-base plus slugging percentage, fourth-fewest runs, etc.
Or, as Maddon called it, "offensively challenged for a lot of the season."
The good news is they'll have several areas to improve. When they walk off the field tonight, only four frontline position players seem set to return — Evan Longoria (at third base), Desmond Jennings (in leftfield or center), Ben Zobrist (at shortstop, second base or the outfield) and, presumably, Matt Joyce (in left or right).
Centerfielder B.J. Upton, first baseman Carlos Peña and infielder Jeff Keppinger are free agents, and DH Luke Scott has a $6 million option the Rays seem unlikely to pick up. Catcher is another large unknown, as they have a $1.8 million option on Jose Molina.
With no advanced prospects ready to ascend, trades or free-agent signings are in order.
Play a better game
The staggering number of close losses — 27 by one run, 19 by two, seven in extra innings, five by 1-0 (in a 54-game span) — illustrate the need to play better fundamentally. The Rays failed regularly to get bunts down (including 12 strikeouts), were miserable in the field throughout the first half and more than occasionally didn't execute.
"Just because you have a good pitching staff doesn't mean you're going to make the playoffs," Shields said. "We definitely have a good pitching staff. We have to put everything together. You can't just pitch and not score runs. You can't just not play defense. You've got to do it all. Over the last couple years, we've pitched, we've had timely hitting, we've had really good defense. This year, there were some points in the season where we didn't have that. And that's kind of what cost us."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.