For Rays, just not enough hitting

Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria leaves the field in the ninth inning after striking out as Red Sox begins to celebrate winning the series.
Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria leaves the field in the ninth inning after striking out as Red Sox begins to celebrate winning the series.
Published Oct. 9, 2013


Move slowly from the field, boys. Grab your bats as you go.

It is over.

A baseball season died Tuesday night. The Tampa Bay Rays finally ran out of comebacks. Finally, they played an elimination game they could not survive.

The Rays — plucky at times, perplexing at others — checked out in a 3-1 loss to the Boston Red Sox. It is time to turn out the lights, and time to send the players along their way.

Their epitaph: They were mostly good. They were not good enough.

In the end, there was too much bad starting pitching in the series, and too much creaky defense, and too much Boston. There were too many back-against-the-wall games; face it, the only team that faced more do-or-die moments than the Rays were the Wallendas.

Most of all, and you have heard this before, there was too little hitting in too many key moments.

It has been said a thousand times. This team just doesn't hit well enough often enough. Oh, the depth of its pitching rotation, and the quality of its defense, is enough to win 90 during the regular season. Nothing wrong with that.

But in the postseason, when the sluggers live, where they come at you one after another, the Rays simply do not measure up to the lineups they face. When they face other teams that also have quality pitching, and who also have good defense, their hitting betrays them.

After all, big-time hitters — and there aren't that many of them — earn bigger checks than the Rays usually pay. It is the single largest deficit in the Rays' structure. Nightly, the Rays are hoping that castoffs and journeymen — Kelly Johnson, Delmon Young, Luke Scott in the regular season — can get the run home.

Take a glance for the last few playoff series for the Rays. This time, they hit only .225 in their four games against the Red Sox. Against the Rangers in 2011, they hit .236 for the series. In 2010, also against the Rangers, they hit .215. In the World Series in 2008, they hit .212.

In their final game of the year, the Rays managed only six hits and a single run. This time, they had enough pitching, although it took a relay team to get through the night. This time, they had enough defense. But when it comes to hitting, these guys couldn't break open a pinata.

In the end, this is what we will remember of this team. They led the league in resiliency. But the way they hit was bound to catch up to them.

At times like this, it feels as if the Rays are built for the regular season, not the playoffs. Not unless a lot of guys get hot all at once.

"This time, we've done everything we could," team owner Stuart Sternberg said before the game. "We traded our No. 1 ace starting pitcher for offense (Wil Myers). We signed a guy we've liked for a couple of years for offense (David DeJesus). We went out and got a right-handed bat for offense (Young)."

So what are we to make of a season that ended too soon? Do we lament that it didn't last longer? Or do we accept that, pretty much, this is what this team was? Do we fume that it fell short of the World Series? Or do we appreciate that it made it as far as the playoffs?

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The truth is, we are bound to feel all of it at different times. There were too many stretches where this team underachieved. Too many stars fell short of their potential. But there was the battling through four elimination games, and there were the late-inning wins. It was hard to pin exactly what this team was and where it was going.

So has winning 90 games gotten stale? Has this team been too long away from the Series for your taste?

"I love the fact that all of the sudden you could be really good and then get stale," Rays manager Joe Maddon was saying the other day. "If people are getting stale, if it does appear to be stale, I really feel badly for them, because I think this is an impressive group that you should support and really look forward to on an annual basis to see this organization going from a perennial 100-game loser, or something close to that, to the point where you're winning 90 games on an annual basis.

"Of course you want to win the final prize, there's no question about that. In the latter part of the season, in short series, sometimes the matchups are tough and sometimes they just don't roll your way. But I really hope and believe that the people in the Tampa Bay area would not frown upon 90-plus wins on an annual basis."

Stale? Sternberg laughs at the idea of it.

"It'll never get stale," he said. "If it ever gets stale, the fan base might only be me, and it won't get stale.

"I don't believe that people really understand what you have to go up against. We had 38 games against Boston and New York, another 19 against Baltimore, another 19 against Toronto, which was supposed to go to the World Series. They outscout you, they outspend you. We shake every July wondering which five guys they're going to pick up."

Later, maybe, the realization of another very good season will settle in on us. But today, you cannot help but wonder what difference one more big bat could make. Maybe one more power threat to go with Longoria. Maybe a speed guy, because this was also one of the slowest Rays teams since the turnaround of '08. Maybe one more high-average guy.

It will be interesting to see what happens to this team in the offseason. Does Sternberg cut the payroll? On the other hand, he is trying to get a stadium built. So does he stay the course?

What does tomorrow bring?

Well, for the Rays, it brings the offseason. It brings questions of what could have happened differently.

For the Rays, that is all that is left of a season that was good, but not good enough.