Tampa Bay Rays down to their last hope against Texas Rangers

ST. PETERSBURG

Hello hopeless, my old friend. Yes, the Rays are here again.

They are back at the edge of never and the brink of forgotten. They are behind the Texas Rangers in the American League Division Series, and perhaps hours from wasting one of the greatest comeback stories in the game's history.

This time, there is no safety net beneath them. This time, there is no need to keep an eye on the out-of-town scoreboard. This time, there is no chance of reprieve.

For the first time in a season of endless pursuit, the Rays wake up knowing they must win a game or head empty-handed into winter.

As you probably know, this is the end that was forecast for a downsized roster from the time Carl Crawford, Carlos Peña and an entire bullpen fled Tampa Bay.

Only the players who stayed behind never accepted their fate and now, 165 games later, their season has finally devolved into a day-to-day proposition.

"It started in March when nobody thought we could win. It was there in April when we got off to a slow start, and people wrote us off," outfielder Sam Fuld said. "It's definitely something we're accustomed to. We're aware of it. We don't enjoy it necessarily, it just seems like we're in a lot of situations where we're behind the 8-ball.

"And we've shown the ability to play well in all of those times."

Technically, the Rays were facing longer odds when they showed up for work Sept. 4 and were nine games behind the Red Sox in the wild-card race. Based on historical precedent, their odds of a comeback were somewhere between stupid and crazy.

This time, the odds are not stacked to the ceiling. But they might be as high as a catwalk.

In the 16-year history of the division series, the team with a lead after Game 3 has gone on to win 78.3 percent of the time.

If that doesn't scare you enough, the last 14 teams that have been behind in this situation have all failed to win the necessary two in a row. In fact, the great majority don't even force a Game 5. You have to go back to 2003 to find the kind of comeback the Rays seek.

"We're used to having our backs against the wall," said designated hitter Johnny Damon, who was on that 2003 Red Sox team that pulled off the feat. "The playoffs aren't supposed to be easy."

Chances? The Rays had plenty on Monday.

In the seventh and eighth innings, Fuld, Damon, Sean Rodriguez, and Ben Zobrist came to the plate with runners in scoring position and failed to get a hit.

They had the tying run on base in each of the final three innings and failed to get the ball out of the infield in five different at-bats.

Decisions? They might have botched a few.

Keeping J.P. Howell on the postseason roster when he had neither the confidence nor the effectiveness of his pre-surgery form could turn out to be a choice that will haunt a franchise well beyond October. Keeping Elliott Johnson as a pinch-runner instead of Dan Johnson as a pinch-hitter might also cost them dearly.

Yet, in the end, this is probably as it should be.

The Rays may have been good enough to somehow win 91 games in the regular season, but they are certainly not good enough to blow past talented teams.

There is a reason they were 4-5 against Texas in the regular season. Just as there was a reason they were 1-6 against Detroit, and lost nine of their first 14 against the Yankees.

As good as the starting pitching has been, as magnificent as the defense can look, the Rays have neither a bullpen nor an offense that can match up with the big boys.

That means, on most nights, their effort has to be perfect. Their execution has to be close to flawless. That means they cannot afford to run into outs on the bases, their relievers cannot afford to give up walks and their 3-4-5 hitters cannot go 1-for-10.

"It's a simple formula: Forget today, play ball," Howell said. "We've done that before, let's get it going again."

So now, the season is being put in the right hand of a 24-year-old rookie from Iowa. And why should it be any different?

The Rays survived as long as they have by taking chances, by having faith and by running more rookies onto the field than ever.

This time, baby-faced Jeremy Hellickson is being asked to resuscitate a season down to its final breaths.

"Believe me, this thing is not over," manager Joe Maddon said. "You have seen what we have done over the last month."

This is true. You have seen it. You have applauded it, marveled over it and maybe even prayed for it. And now today, you ask for it to continue.

Just one more day of hope.

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

Tampa Bay Rays down to their last hope against Texas Rangers 10/04/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 4, 2011 8:21am]

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