For years it has been their hidden strength. Nobody, nobody, has caught the ball the way the Rays have caught the ball.
Across the nation, everyone has talked about their pitching. Every so often, the talking heads have mentioned their knack of getting a bit hit in the big moment of a big game. Everyone has talked about the values in the lineup and how smart the Rays have been for finding them.
No one, however, has seemed to talk about the Rays' defense but the Rays themselves. There has not been a ball they could not catch, a space they could not cover, a play they could not make.
They have played defense like the '85 Bears, like the '02 Bucs. Once, Rays owner Stuart Sternberg suggested that if the defense had a nickname, it should be "the Tarp" because of the way it covers the field. It has turned doubles into outs and triples into highlights.
And now it does not.
Now there are holes in the gloves and errors on the arms, and for whatever reason, the ball is in rightfield as the winning run crosses the plate.
Suddenly, the defense — the solid, dependable, gold-plated defense of the Tampa Bay Rays — has sprung a leak. The most unsettling trend of the 2012 season struck again Saturday in a 2-1 defeat to the Baltimore Orioles. Suddenly, the Rays' defense might as well have Keith McCants, Broderick Thomas and Rod Jones in the starting lineup.
And furthermore, oops.
It has been an alarming sight, these defensive sputterings of the Rays, something like the sun rising in the west or dropping a brick and having it fall upward. There have always been days when the offense did not hit, and even days when the occasional pitcher has struggled. But since Joe Maddon's arrival, the Rays have always filled their gloves.
No one has known how many runs they might score, but defensively they weren't going to give up many, either.
This year has been a different story. The Rays have now committed 23 errors in their past 20 games. In a third of a season, they have committed 46 errors, second worst in the league. Compare that to last year, when they committed 73 errors, best in the majors. In other words, gold gloves have turned to lead.
As a result, the Rays have allowed 28 unearned runs in 53 games. By comparison, they gave up 37 unearned runs all last season.
And you wonder: What might the standings look like if the Rays had been catching the ball with their usual efficiency?
"We're making too many mistakes out there," Maddon said. "This is who we are right now. This is what we've got going. We're going to support our guys. We're going to keep working at it and try not to make those mistakes."
Much of the reason for the Rays' slippage, granted, has been injury. Evan Longoria is a Gold Glove third baseman. Yeah, the Rays miss that. Desmond Jennings is one of the fastest leftfielders in the game. Yeah, the Rays miss that. No one counted on this many innings from Drew Sutton or Will Rhymes or Elliot Johnson. Yeah, that factors in, too. Players such as Sean Rodriguez have played out of position. And so forth.
The maddening thing for the Rays, however, is how many errors have come on fairly routine plays. Great plays? This team still has them. Ben Zobrist caught one ball against the fence Saturday, dived to catch another and threw a runner out at the plate. On Friday night, Matt Joyce made two impressive plays, and B.J. Upton threw a runner out at second in what may have been the play of the game.
Then there are the moments that hurt your eyes to see. The Rays had scraped their way back into a tie Saturday — which is difficult when a team has only two hits for the game — and considering the way Jeremy Hellickson was throwing, victory seemed possible.
But with two out in the seventh inning, Ryan Flaherty reached on catcher's interference by Jose Lobaton (error). Then, on a chopper by Robert Andino, Sutton rushed the throw, and it sailed wide of Carlos Peña.
This is how errors beat a team. They force a pitcher to throw more pitches. They reduce the margin of error for hitters. They turn the opponents' at-bats into a four-out proposition.
"The mistakes we made are pedestrian mistakes," Maddon said. "Catcher's interference. A chopper to third base. Those are plays we usually put in our back pocket easily. We're not doing that. It's like the routine play is beating us up."
Around here, that hasn't happened for a while. There is a reason for the Gold Glove on display in the Rays' clubhouse, and for the one that is painted on the wall at the spring training facility in Port Charlotte. There are reasons that every spring, Maddon challenges as many as a half-dozen players to win a Gold Glove.
Now? "We aren't up to our gold standard," Maddon said.
If the Rays are going to last in the AL East, that has to change. After all, if the trophy is in the air, someone has to catch it.