Tampa Bay Rays' recent play gives cause for concern

Reid Brignac, whose misplay on a steal led to a run, reacts after making the final out.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Reid Brignac, whose misplay on a steal led to a run, reacts after making the final out.

3 Combination of Rays wins and Yankees losses needed to clinch the AL East championship.

KANSAS CITY, Mo.

By now, you expect them to be sharp. By now, you expect them to look dominating. By now, you expect their hair to smell like champagne.

By now, you expect the Rays to resemble a playoff team.

Don't you?

Certainly, you do not expect the Rays to stumble around like a team that has lost its directions to the postseason. Given their history, you might expect the Rays to flail at the ball with their bats but not with their gloves. You do not expect them to play as if they are daring you to guess which team on the field is trying to become the champion of baseball's toughest division and which is a last-place team that just wants the season to be over with so everyone can go home.

To sum it up, you do not expect the Rays to look like this.

The Rays were awful Thursday night. They could not hit, they could not field and they could not win. Most of all, they could not assure you that in the games to come, they will be any better.

For the sake of the pennant, is this any way for a team to get ready for the playoffs? Given the schedule — 10 straight games against lousy teams — victories ought to be as easy as strolling through the market and plucking a loaf of bread from the shelf.

Instead, the Rays are suddenly playing like — and this is going to sound harsh — the Devil Rays. They lost their fourth game out of five Thursday night, this time to the woeful Royals, who are basically the sorrowful Orioles with better steaks and the wretched Mariners with better barbecue.

The Rays fell 3-2, and the night ended with a familiar annoyance, which begs a familiar question:

Are you worried yet?

Just pointing this out, but in the playoffs, there are teams that are even better than the Mariners and the Orioles and the Royals. After all, those teams are a combined 85 games back in their divisions and a combined 95 games under .500.

Yet this morning, the Rays should exhale loudly and be grateful that none of them made the playoffs. Lately, they seem to be too much to handle.

That's a shame, of course, because the Yankees are in their own free fall, and if the Rays had played just a little bit better over the last five nights, they might have had this thing wrapped up by now. But over the five nights, they have managed to lose one game to the Mariners, two to the Orioles and now one to the Royals. You could think of it as getting lost in the Bermuda Triangle except that Bermuda has better pitching.

You want positives? Here it goes: The Rays pulled into a first-place tie. Unfortunately, they did it from ahead, which never seems as much fun.

In their last four losses, the Rays have scored a combined four runs. If you have followed along this season, that probably doesn't surprise you. The hitting often seems to fade in and out like bad radio reception.

But the fielding? What was up with that? Technically, the Rays had only two errors, but that's because the scorekeeper was in a charitable mood. Let's see: Matt Garza fell over trying to field a grounder. Carlos Peña threw wide toward home. Reid Brignac dropped a ball on a steal attempt. Carl Crawford got caught playing too shallow — his coaches moved him up — and saw a ball hit over his head for a triple. Ben Zobrist dropped a popup. (He said it would have been a tough play.) All in all, it was the worst defensive game the Rays have played since the franchise became respectable.

It was stunning to see the Rays play this badly with their gloves.

Just before the game, manager Joe Maddon was talking about the team's defense, which he feels has been the best in baseball. Most nights, Maddon has had a point. But not Thursday.

"I don't see it as a lack of focus," Maddon said. "I just think of it as a bad night."

I know, I know. The proper response here is calm and never you mind where the lifeboats are. The proper reaction is to think of it as a slump — heck, the 2008 team lost three of its last four. In baseball, after all, momentum changes with that day's pitcher, and Evan Longoria wasn't in the lineup and so forth.

That said, the Rays will not last long in the playoffs if they do not play better than this, hit better than this and focus better than this. It is not a good sign that this team was 13-14 in the month of September.

The disappointment of it is that these performances have come just as the Rays have their goals in sight. All year, the Rays have talked about how much they want to win the American League East, and they have now spent five nights refusing to cash the check. The necks of the Yankees — three games under .500 in September — remain unstepped upon.

The worst news?

The Rays have to play those mighty Royals again tonight. If they are not careful, they may trip over them. Again.

Tampa Bay Rays' recent play gives cause for concern 10/01/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 1, 2010 8:35am]

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