The Rays have set themselves up for a wild finish to the regular season. And that may be the easy part, because after that the best-case scenario is a take-your-chances play-in game — or if there are ties, maybe two or three — to join the real postseason party. How it works out, whether they win the first wild card or the second, end up in a tiebreaker or miss out entirely on the postseason, will play out the next two weeks. But no matter, it is clear that with a legit shot to win the American League East, they played themselves into this mess. How did that happen? Here are a few reasons:
The Rays haven't just had some tough losses, they've had some brutal, staggering, guts-ripped-out defeats with lingering effects. Five of the worst:
• 7-5 at Yankees, June 22: The "chips and salsa" game. Took a 5-3 lead on Wil Myers' grand slam off CC Sabathia only to have relievers Jake McGee and Joel Peralta blow it. Maddon brought snacks to the clubhouse for postgame consoling.
• 7-6 at Dodgers, Aug. 9: Took 6-0 lead behind David Price into the seventh and 6-3 into the ninth then lost when Fernando Rodney made bad pitches and a horrible throw for a walkoff error.
• 7-3 (10) vs. Red Sox, Sept. 11: Battled back to tie in the eighth then lost in the 10th on three walks (one intentional) and Mike Carp's pinch-hit grand slam off Roberto Hernandez.
• 8-7 vs. Blue Jays, May 6: Took 7-0 lead into the fourth but Jeremy Hellickson faltered then Rodney failed in the ninth, allowing a two-strike, two-out, two-run homer to J.P. Arencibia.
• 10-8 (14) vs. Red Sox, June 10: Down 6-0 before batting, Rays battled back — including a benches-emptying moment after John Lackey hit Matt Joyce — to tie by the eighth then again with two in 10th, and came up empty anyway.
It's spelled r-e-l-i-e-f
It wasn't fair — however tempting — to expect Fernando Rodney to repeat his record-breaking 2012 season. But the Rays were counting on him to be better, or at least more consistent, than he has, blowing eight saves (second most in the majors) and posting worse peripheral stats (through Friday):
Stats 2012 2013
Saves 48 35
Blown saves 2 8
ERA 0.60 3.56
Avg. allowed .167 .211
OPS allowed .417 .643
Walks 15 34
Pitches/inning 14.8 18.3
Plus, the rest of the bullpen — missing RHP Wade Davis and LHP J.P. Howell — hasn't been as good, with a significantly higher ERA (3.71 vs. 2.88 last year) and batting average (.223-.208) and OPS (.648-.597) allowed, worse save percentage (71-86) and more walks and hits allowed per inning (1.22-1.08). Two other main culprits: Jake McGee and Joel Peralta.
The Rays were successful in reshaping their offense to cut down on strikeouts and increase contact. But inconsistency — specifically with runners in scoring position — has been a plague. For much of the first four months they performed better than they should have and as recently as July 19 led the American League in RISP hitting. More recently, they have been the worst. In their 4-13 skid through Wednesday, they hit only .173 with RISP and scored just 44 runs, their worst 17-game stretch since the Devil Rays days of 2000.
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The Rays have great players who lead, such as David Price, who is a tremendous cheerleaders and teammate, and Evan Longoria, who does so in a more businesslike and by-example way. But some around the team feel they lack a true clubhouse leader, the kind of guy, or guys, who might speak up, and loudly, when things aren't going well or speak out when something needs to be addressed. Someone who knows when to bring intensity to the clubhouse, levity or even occasionally flat-out crazy. They've had that guy in the past, be it Jonny Gomes or Johnny Damon, be it Cliff Floyd or Eric Hinske, or even, more recently, James Shields. But they don't have him now and, at times, it shows.
Strength of schedule
The Rays are 42-19 against teams with winning percentages under .500, including 26-9 vs. the last-place Blue Jays, White Sox, Astros, Marlins and Giants. But they are 38-47 against teams at .500 or better, including 13-21 vs. the first-place Red Sox, Tigers, A's and Dodgers.
Kelly Nash is wrapping up a one-year deal as Sun Sports' Rays reporter but will stick around for at least the winter, hired to do pregame, in-game and postgame reports for Lightning TV broadcasts. … Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal poses an interesting question: "So, after all the debate over the Wil Myers trade, what if Royals make playoffs and Rays don't? Will deal still look as short-sighted?" … As the rotation is currently set, LHP Matt Moore would pitch Game 162 and LHP David Price a Game 163 tiebreaker or wild-card game. … It doesn't seem right (and not just because Times writers are regular guests) that the Rays radio pregame show isn't aired in the Tampa Bay market on September weeknights due to Bucs player/coach shows. … The Rays decided to not renew their sponsorship of the kids play area at Tampa's International Plaza; Busch Gardens takes over.
It was going to be hard to match 2012's stellar success anyway, and the Rays made it tougher by trading veteran leader James Shields, along with Wade Davis, who was a decent fallback option. They further traded down by signing Roberto Hernandez to fill in at the back end but losing Jeff Niemann for the season due to shoulder surgery. The hits kept coming, as David Price (triceps), Alex Cobb (concussion) and Matt Moore (elbow) all had extended DL stints, and Jeremy Hellickson was so bad he was forced to take a week off. They had to patch holes from mid May until early September, starting four rookies in a seven-game span, and six in 12, plus veteran reliever Jamey Wright on Sept. 1, and using nine starters total, most since 2008. Naturally, the results haven't been as good — the starters ERA is a half-run higher than last year (3.34 to 3.87), strikeouts are down, walks are up.
Got a minute? with Chris Gimenez
Best meal you can make?
We call them Santa Marias. It's like a steak sandwich. Take tri-tip, marinate it — a special marinade, I can't tell you or I'd have to kill you — then slow roast it on the barbecue and slap it on some garlic bread.
Duck Dynasty — that's not even a question. If you haven't seen it, you've got issues.
Band/singer you'd like to be on stage with?
Sevendust, without a doubt.
Gladiator. It's like a feel-good story; how could you not root for Russell Crowe?
It's a tie between Carrie Underwood (far left) and Jessica Biel. Jessica Biel could have a slight edge — and she knows that.
2 Hits in their last 22 at-bats with the bases loaded
7 Losses when scoring six or more runs.
7 Losses on the last pitch.
11 Losses when blowing a lead in the seventh inning or later, including nine in their first 75 games.
73 Innings in which they allowed four or more runs.