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World Series: Remember the Tampa Bay Rays' good times

PHILADELPHIA — For a team that spent most of a season righting itself, the final scene seemed all wrong.

In the end, the faces of the Tampa Bay Rays stared blankly toward a baseball field where the wrong team was celebrating. For several seconds, as if frozen by disbelief, the Rays watched the Philadelphia Phillies cavort. Finally, they turned and walked away from the World Series, a team that finally had run out of tomorrows.

The magical, memorable run of the Rays died Wednesday night.

If at all possible, try not to remember the story by the final chapter.

It ended in five games. It ended with whimpering bats and wayward defense and wobbly pitching. It ended with the Rays looking like faded copies of earlier efforts. It ended with a manager pushing buttons that finally did not work. It would take months to sort out all the reasons for losing this series; unfortunately for the Rays, they now have months in which to do it.

So what went wrong?

Besides, well, everything?

Even before their 4-3 loss in Wednesday night's Mini-Me of a Game 5, the Rays had spent the Series looking as they were a half-click away from sharpness.

"We weren't the same team," said designated hitter Cliff Floyd. "We didn't play the same type of baseball. That's a learning thing. You learn from your mistakes. They caught more breaks than we caught, and the breaks we did catch were minimal. But they beat us fair and square. They deserved it."

Was it the opponent? Was it a letdown from the emotional series against the Red Sox? Was it a young team's first visit to the World Series? Defeat makes all questions worth asking, doesn't it?

Much of it, of course, was the Phillies, who had the same pressures, faced the same circumstances and endured the same weather as the Rays.

What went wrong? Start with the pitching. Wasn't the Rays' depth of starting pitching supposed to be their biggest edge in this Series? In five starts, however, no Rays starter went more than six innings and two went as little as four. As for the bullpen, it was as vulnerable as it had been all season.

Consider this: During the regular season, the ERA of the Rays' pitchers was 3.82. In the Series, it was 4.50. In the regular season, opponents hit .246; in the Series, they hit .262.

What went wrong? Consider the defense. The Rays committed errors in eight straight games during the postseason. That was new. During the regular season, the Rays had errors in more than four straight games once (a six-game streak in July).

What went wrong? How about the hitting. The Rays finished the Series hitting .212. In particular, run-producers Carlos Pena hit .118 and Evan Longoria .050.

Even manager Joe Maddon didn't have his usual knack. His decision to let reliever J.P. Howell bat in the seventh inning instead of going for the big inning didn't work. Maddon wanted Howell to stay and pitch to Chase Utley; Howell gave up a leadoff double.

In the ninth, Maddon pulled Rocco Baldelli — who had homered on the only pitch he had seen Wednesday night — in favor of Ben Zobrist. During the regular season, it was precisely the kind of move that had worked for Maddon. This time, Zobrist lined out to rightfield.

That pretty much sums it up. More than anything, what was missing from the Rays was that uncanny ability to win close games. This year the Rays were 29-18 in games decided by one run and 23-8 in those decided by two. In this series, they lost three times by a run.

Considering the season the Rays have had, it looked wrong. It was like watching a version of Casablanca where Ilsa refuses to get on the plane.

"They're a very good team," said outfielder Rocco Baldelli of the Phillies. "But we didn't play very well. That might have something to do with the opponent, but we'd like to think we could play better."

Perhaps, in the back of your mind, you are wondering if the Rays lost some of their edge after the emotional series against the Red Sox. Baldelli wonders, too.

"The fanfare and atmosphere in the Boston series was almost bigger than it was in the World Series," Baldelli said. "Everything around the Boston series was built up bigger than this. It was a seven-game series, kind of a crazy series.

"I don't know if it took anything out of us, but it definitely was a tamer atmosphere (in the World Series)."

Eventually, you will not remember the Rays like this. You will not remember the muddy infield or the smudged hat or the wobbly umpiring or the quiet bats. You will remember the 105 victories, not the four out of five games they lost at the end.

Eventually, you will remember what they accomplished, not the one prize that went unclaimed.

Considering the way the story ended, it might take a while.

World Series: Remember the Tampa Bay Rays' good times 10/29/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 30, 2008 8:25pm]
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