The throw from CF Kevin Kiermaier came in hot at the end of that late June Sunday afternoon in Cleveland, and it took a short hop that paralyzed C Curt Casali in a do-or-die play, allowing the game's only run to score as the ball bounced frustratingly away.
Little did the Rays know their season would go with it.
At a season high of 10 games over .500 at 40-30 and leading the American League East going into that game against the Indians, the Rays would start a slide (31-46 through Friday) that has left them battling to avoid last place and a longshot to finish with a winning record.
How did it all get away? There are several reasons (all stats through Friday):
Close not good enough
Because of the way they are built, focused on pitching and defense and lacking artillery on offense, the Rays are predisposed to play tight games. And that is exactly what happened this season, a majors-most 84 of their first 147 decided by one or two runs. But they weren't good enough at it, going 41-43 in those games and 24-27 in one-run games. Even worse, of course, was their performance when working overtime as they are a majors-worst 2-13 in extra innings (scoring only four runs in those frames) and losing a record-threatening 11 straight. Also, they have 12 walkoff losses vs. one walkoff win.
As much wudda-cudda-shudda as it sounds, if the Rays had been only marginally better — getting that one big hit or making that one key play or pitch — in those close games, their record might be, what, five games better? Seven? Ten? And they might actually be playing games that mean something in late September.
The Rays' season can be broken into several segments:
W-L ERA R/PG
April 6-June 1 26-26 3.75 3.75
June 2-June 20 14-4 2.89 3.83
June 21-July 9 3-15 4.93 3.22
July 10-Aug. 12 15-11 3.37 4.04
Aug. 13-Sept. 18 13-20 4.14 4.18
There have been computers whirring at the Trop to delve into the data, but for a simple explanation try this: Early injuries left the Rays essentially with the personnel of a .500 team, they pitched very well for the first two months then extraordinarily during that June stretch, the pitching fell off as the injuries and heavy early bullpen use caught up to them during the rough patch, and by the time the offense finally got rolling in early August, the pitching let them down.
Oh, the pain
Every team has to deal with injuries, though the Rays did seem to have more than their share, 21 players serving 26 stints on the disabled list.
But what hurt them the most was the quality of the players they lost as the injuries eventually caught up with them.
Consider that of 132 starts (33 each) projected from their top four pitchers — Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Drew Smyly and Jake Odorizzi — they will get about 70. Cobb, their No. 1, missed the whole season, Smyly about two-thirds and Odorizzi an integral six weeks (coinciding with their worst stretch).
While rookie Nathan Karns and Erasmo Ramirez proved capable replacements (a combined 17-10, 3.59 in 50 starts), there was a definite trickledown impact: the bullpen had to be used more with them starting, and the Rays had to reach even deeper for additional help, going 7-13 in games started by Matt Andriese and Alex Colome.
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While LF Desmond Jennings being limited to 28 games would seem to be the most significant position player injury issue, the quality of his replacements make a better case for DH John Jaso missing 83 games as being the most painful absence.
Whatever the reason — using it too much, too early in games, in too many high-leverage situations — the bullpen has not been good enough. And that was too bad.
Brad Boxberger, the de facto closer, has six blown saves and has 10 losses (six on walkoffs). Overall, the pen, which was supposed to be a strength, has an AL-high 22 blown saves (in an MLB-most 76 opportunities for a middling 71.05 percentage), an MLB-most 34 losses and a 3.80 ERA that ranks ninth in the AL and would be their worst since 2009, while working an AL-most 4922/3 innings. Further, they are 18-33 in games decided in the seventh inning or later, 5-18 from the ninth on. And they've lost 11 games in which they led after six, seven after seven, four after eight.
Bullpen management can be the hardest part of the job for any manager, and rookie skipper Kevin Cash has made more than a few decisions that didn't work out.
But to be fair, it hasn't been all his doing. Between the Rays' injury-induced strategy of limiting certain starters to two times through the order to using certain relievers only in specific situations to giving pitchers days off upon request, Cash has had limited options.
"There's been hearty dialogue with Kevin and our coaches about how to best manage our pitching staff's innings," baseball operations president Matt Silverman said. "It's been even more challenging because of the injuries and unique circumstances we've encountered. Kevin faces difficult decisions nearly every game, and he's navigated it well. He's focused on open communication with our pitchers and learning together how we can maximize our personnel to win ballgames."
The Jepsen effect
Some of the stats don't show much of a dropoff — a bullpen ERA of 3.73 before, 3.96 after — but people around the clubhouse say there was definitely an impact on the spirit and the chemistry after the Rays traded veteran reliever Kevin Jepsen at the July 31 deadline. And traded him (for two low-level minor-league pitchers) to a Twins team they were chasing in the wild-card race. While other teams were adding, there was a feeling among some around the Rays that management had given up — though computer models, such as fangraphs.com, gave them only a 13.6 percent chance of making it then. Having another key reliever, Jake McGee, go down with a knee injury less than three weeks later made it worse. They have blown 13 of 26 save opportunities since the trade (after converting 41 of 50 before) and are 20-24 overall with five walkoff losses and another at home in extra innings.
The Langerhans moment
In August 2009, the Rays were trying furiously to battle their way back from a slow start into playoff contention when they sustained a staggering loss that pretty much punctured their hopes, J.P. Howell giving away a lead they just took in the top of the 11th in Seattle by giving up a two-run walkoff homer to Ryan Langerhans, leading to a 24-30 finish. They have had several such "Langerhans moments" this season, including:
• At Texas on Aug. 14, leading 3-2 in the seventh, Steve Geltz gave up a tying homer to Delino DeShields leading to a 5-3 loss and the start of a three-game sweep; 13-20 from then on.
• At Houston on Aug. 19, leading 2-1 with one out in the ninth, Brad Boxberger gave up a tying single to Evan Gattis leading to a second straight walkoff loss; 12-16 from then on.
• At Baltimore on Sept. 2, leading 6-4 in the ninth, Boxberger gave up a two-run homer to Jonathan Schoop leading to an 11-inning walkoff loss on a Chris Davis homer; 5-10 from then on.
• The Rays made a grand gesture in accommodating Carlos Peña's request to retire in their uniform and have developed a core group of alumni to do outreach and public appearances. The next logical step would be to launch a Rays Hall of Fame, perhaps tied to the 20-season mark in 2017, or a likely 2018 celebration of the 2008 World Series team. And if they did, who would be the first inductee? Wade Boggs? Fred McGriff? Vince Naimoli? Carl Crawford? Don Zimmer? Joe Maddon?
• Peña said he "hadn't even thought" about seeking a position with the Rays. Given that he is bilingual, a great communicator (working as an analyst for MLB Network), experienced in the highs and lows of the game and smart, the Rays would seem well-served to come up with something before another team inquires.
Assuming the Rays are out, RHP Chris Archer is heading to Taiwan in mid October for the opening of an MLB info center and is still in talks about doing some TV work during the playoffs. … Brewers chatter is that VP Chaim Bloom, who interviewed last week in L.A., has a legit shot at the GM job. … Ex-Ray Aubrey Huff, 38 and retired since 2012, Facebooked he is having a recurring dream of coming back and playing for the Rays: "I do feel mentally, and physically stronger than I ever have in my life. Hmmmmmm!???" … Expect official word soon that Sun Sports reporter/host Emily Austen will do Magic game telecasts. … A cool sign of how much respect CF Kevin Kiermaier is getting around the league? Manager Joe Girardi said the Yankees "play games in BP at times and we always say, well, Kiermaier's got that." … You know it's football season when the Rays pregame show gets bumped off flagship radio station 620-AM for Bucs player talk shows.