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Where are the Tampa Bay Rays, the team formerly known as AL East champs?

George Vorob of Orlando, his mother, Martha Vorob of St. Petersburg, and other fans can’t hide their disappointment after a Ranger score.

CHRIS ZUPPA | Times

George Vorob of Orlando, his mother, Martha Vorob of St. Petersburg, and other fans can’t hide their disappointment after a Ranger score.

ST. PETERSBURG

If you give it some time, the frustration will fade and perspective will take hold. I'm thinking a decade should be enough. Maybe more if you invested in plaid.

Because the truth is 2010 will always be a glorious year for the Tampa Bay Rays. They took a bunch of rookies and a handful of castoffs and they finished ahead of the snooty Yankees and the loathsome Red Sox in a test that endured for 162 regular-season games.

Unfortunately, that particular scrapbook has already been put away. And those snapshots already seem dated.

For what has happened in the past two days is threatening to overwhelm many of the memories created from spring to fall. The American League division series is not yet over — the Rays are certainly capable of winning the necessary three games in a row against Texas — but this season seems hellbent on reaching the past tense by week's end.

It is not just that the Rays have lost the first two games in this best-of-five series.

It is that they have failed to even show up.

The starting pitching has been weak. The offense has been even worse. And the magic we have learned to typically expect from Joe Maddon's lineup card has disappeared altogether.

"You've got to make adjustments. You're not going to change what's already happened. You've got to do something," reliever Grant Balfour said. "As a pitcher, as a hitter, whatever. You can complain all day. And you'll be complaining on your way home."

Just a few days ago, the Rays were rallying in the ninth inning against Kansas City. Rocco Baldelli was stealing a base and scoring the winning run, and Tampa Bay was celebrating another American League East title.

So how did we get here in a matter of hours?

How could it go so wrong so quickly?

The reality is the Rays have always carried around this potential for disaster. Their lineup is horribly flawed, and their pitching has been on a downhill slide for more than a month. They are versatile, and they are deep, but they are not brimming with stars.

They started a designated hitter Wednesday who had five hits in the big leagues this season. They started a rightfielder Thursday who has four hits in his entire major-league career. They used a rightfielder at first base and a No. 9 hitter at leadoff. Their Game 2 starting pitcher gave up more hits, home runs and earned runs than any pitcher in the American League this season.

When you're looking at it from that perspective, yeah, maybe this isn't such a shock.

What hurts is the Rays have overcome all of those flaws this season. And if you give them a month of games against the Rangers, I'm betting they would be the better team by the 31st.

But if the regular season is a test of endurance, the playoffs are essentially a crapshoot. And the Rays are one roll of the dice from going bust.

"This is not something you want to overanalyze," infielder Sean Rodriguez said. "I mean, how many times have we lost two games in a row this season? Teams do that. But, yeah, this is not a position we want to be in.

"We worked hard all season long, not just to make it to the playoffs but to win the AL East and put ourselves in position to win in the playoffs. Now we're down 0-2. Our hitters aren't hitting; our pitchers haven't been at their best. We're in trouble, but we'll get it going."

The line between loss and humiliation is narrow, and the Rays passed it several strikeouts ago. It's never a good sign when a 0-0 score after two innings is the highlight of your week.

As Balfour was walking from the shower to his locker after Thursday's game, he looked at the large grease board that told players the bus for the airport was leaving in 45 minutes. Balfour stopped, found a green marker at the bottom of the board and wrote his own message.

WIN 2 IN TEXAS LET'S GO!

"We just haven't done anything in these two games. That's the bottom line," Balfour said. "We can't just walk out there and think things are going to happen. We can't worry about all the intangibles. You have to play your game and do the little things right. And all the guys know what those things are. It's frustrating right now, no doubt. We've dug ourselves a hole, and we've got to get out."

Of course, there's far more to the story than the past two days. There is an entire body of work behind the Rays that can not be ignored. And there is an economic reality ahead of the Rays, which also can not be discounted.

Ownership has made it clear that this team will not be kept intact after the final strike is called. Carl Crawford is already halfway out the door. Fans at Tropicana Field understood that well enough to begin chanting his name in the final minutes of Thursday's loss.

Essentially, the Rays spent more on payroll this season than ownership says the team can afford. And that added a sense of urgency to 2010. There is a feeling that the Rays went all-in on the pot this year.

And now the season is feeling more and more like a bluff.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

1995
Mariners

vs. Yankees

2001
Yankees

vs. Athletics

Where are the Tampa Bay Rays, the team formerly known as AL East champs? 10/07/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 8, 2010 11:23am]

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