PHILADELPHIA — By now they should be beyond criticism.
The Tampa Bay Rays of 2008 already have accomplished more than even they had anticipated. They have exceeded the possibilities of experts, computer models and maybe even natural law.
So now that their season is on the brink of extinction, there is no sense in railing about their shortcomings. Really, it is not just or fair to complain about the way they have played in this World Series.
No, this morning there is only this:
Sadness at the way this appears to be ending.
It is not that the Phillies are one victory away from winning the World Series. Heck, nobody said this was going to be easy, and a lot of folks have been waiting a very long time for the Rays to fall.
The sadness is in the way it is going down.
For the first time in the franchise's 11 years, a lot of people are paying attention to the Tampa Bay Rays right now. And they are not seeing the team you and I have watched for seven months.
"The one thing that ticks me off — and I don't watch TV too much — but we go down, and it's like all hell has broken loose. Like this is the worst team people have ever seen," said designated hitter Cliff Floyd, who was deactivated Sunday with a shoulder injury. "This is a team that's just going through a tough period."
At this point, there are plenty of explanations. About pitchers throwing a little too high in the zone, or hitters swinging at pitches just off the plate. You can analyze the stats, and you may point to this reason or that.
But in the end, this just doesn't feel right. It doesn't feel like the team that showed spunk in March and heart in September. It doesn't feel like the team that has had carefree haircuts in the good times and short memories in the bad.
That Rays team played defense as if all of its gloves were made of gold. And yet, in Game 4 on Sunday night, second baseman Aki Iwamura made two errors. And the night before, Dioner Navarro essentially threw the game away with a hasty decision in the ninth inning.
That Rays team had the deepest, most versatile bullpen in the American League. And yet, the relievers appear to be running out of steam as the calender moves closer to November.
That Rays team figured it would win the World Series because the starting rotation looked so much better than Philadelphia's. And yet, the Phillies' starters have outpitched every Ray not named James Shields.
That Rays team did not have the greatest offense you have seen, but it had a remarkable knack for coming up with hits at the biggest moments. And yet, the hitters have been bystanders in their own demise.
And that is what is so disappointing about this World Series.
"You're right. Those things aren't happening the way they have for us this year," said Game 4 starter Andy Sonnanstine. "I don't know what to tell you."
Beginning in late August, when injuries began piling up and the Red Sox began creeping closer, you knew the end could come at any moment. But you figured it would happen with blood on the field. With the Rays scratching, clawing and fighting as if their lives depended on it.
You never expected the final memory to be so many called third strikes.
The easy culprits, of course, are Carlos Pena and Evan Longoria. They are at the heart of Tampa Bay's lineup, and they are in the middle of this World Series collapse.
The current tally, in case you could no longer bear to count, is 0-for-29 with 15 strikeouts. Pena is hitless in 13 at-bats, and Longoria has been silent in 16. They are actually astonishing numbers. Almost incomprehensible. It's hard to imagine any team has ever seen its Nos. 3 and 4 hitters disappear so completely in the World Series. Between them, they have hit only two fair balls out of the infield.
"Everybody struggles. It's just that we're under the microscope so much right now," Longoria said. "We go three or four games without a hit and everybody is saying, 'What's going on?' It happens all the time during the season, but this is the World Series, so that makes it a little more dramatic."
So, yes, the results are disappointing. A few days ago, the Rays seemed ready to ride down Central Avenue in convertibles and glory. Tampa Bay seemed prepared to celebrate its third championship in six years, following the examples of the Buccaneers and Lightning.
But every World Series has a loser, and there was a 50 percent chance the Rays were going to be the fall guys in this Fall Classic.
What hurts is seeing them go down this way. They are better than this, and they know it. You know it, and I know it, too. Maybe they turn it around tonight in Game 5. Maybe they bring the Series back home.
But for now, it's a shame to think America may never get to know the real Rays of 2008.