ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays had talked a lot before the season about improving the offense.
They brought in DH Pat Burrell and expected other players to have better seasons.
Although they had their best offensive season in club history, statistically, scoring a franchise-high 783 runs (782 in 2007), the Rays won't be returning to the playoffs partly because their bats were too inconsistent, or "clumpy," as manager Joe Maddon said. And Thursday night's 3-2 loss to the Orioles was a perfect example.
The offense picked up two hits through the first eight innings but had three in a late rally, putting the Rays' record in one-run games at 20-25.
The Rays have scored seven or more runs in a game 41 times. But they've tallied three or fewer in 70.
"It's just there's been days where we just really poured it on and other days where we couldn't get it going, kind of like (Thursday) up until the last inning," OF Ben Zobrist said. "It's hard to find the rhyme or reason that makes it what it was. But hopefully that consistency will be there next season."
Maddon said there have been players such as Zobrist (27 homers, 89 RBIs) and SS Jason Bartlett who have had career seasons, with greater numbers than they anticipated. But there have been others such as Burrell, C Dioner Navarro and CF B.J. Upton who haven't put up the numbers that were expected.
"For us to win," Maddon said, "we have to have that whole group pretty much churning."
Tough matchup: Zobrist has had a career season, but he has been at his best against the Orioles, hitting .407 with seven homers and 18 RBIs. He does not have more than three homers or nine RBIs against any other team.
Zobrist hit a homer and added a double in the ninth Thursday.
"(LHP Chris Waters) stayed away from the middle of the plate, except to Babe Ruth over there," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "I'm glad that's over with. I thought he was no longer out there, but he's been reincarnated against us this year."
Price's last stand: LHP David Price hopes to finish his "up-and-down" rookie season on a high note in his final start tonight against the Yankees.
While Price's numbers (9-7, 4.60 ERA) may not pop off the page, Maddon said the fact that the 2007 top pick has gotten better as the year has gone on is what he'll remember the most.
Price has "steadily improved, all season, from spring training," Maddon said. "He's throwing strikes with his fastball, and now he's experimenting with his other pitches. And he knows he needs to do it in order to be a very successful pitcher in years to come.
"He's very bright, and he gets all that. I just think steady improvement in all facets; command, command of his fastball, utilization of his curveball, better changeup, all of those things have gotten better."
Price, who started the season in Triple-A Durham, struggled with his command early on when he joined the Rays, issuing 30 walks in his first eight starts.
But Price, 24, bounced back, walking just 22 in his past 14 starts, and in doing so, he was pitching rather than just throwing. His fastball command got better, and Maddon said he took a "quantum jump" two starts ago when he used his curveball more and outdueled Blue Jays ace Roy Halladay for the second time.
"I've become a better pitcher the last couple months of the season," Price said. "That's what it's about. I'll reflect on this next year when I come into spring training, remember what I've done thus far and go from there."
Miscellany: With the Rays set to face lefties on three straight days, LF Carl Crawford was scheduled to get Thursday off, but he pinch-hit in the eighth. Maddon said they will use a "standard lineup" tonight against the Yankees but said "everyone is going to come involved" in the three-game series.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.