BALTIMORE — How many blows can the Rays take before their chance to make the playoffs for the first time in six years blows up?
The latest came Thursday morning, when Brandon Lowe slid out of an MRI tube.
The imaging revealed a strain in his left quadriceps that all but officially ended his rookie season that was once so intriguingly promising.
Lowe was first sidelined in early July, when he fouled a ball off his right leg, sustaining a deep and severe bone bruise that took an extraordinarily long time to heal.
He was finally able to start playing rehab games last weekend and was doing well enough that the Rays were eagerly looking forward to having him back in their lineup soon, potentially for next week’s games against the AL West-leading Astros.
Now the Rays don’t expect to see him play again until spring training.
“He’s done for the year,” manager Kevin Cash said. “I think that’s the best way to say it. And if he comes back early, great.”
Lowe was playing for Triple-A Durham on Wednesday in the final stages of his long recovery and rehab, running hard to first after bouncing a ball to the right side, when he felt the quad muscle tear in his other leg.
He returned to St. Petersburg early Thursday for the MRI exam and a visit with Dr. Koco Eaton, who delivered the bad news.
The length of time missed is relative to the severity of the strain; catcher Mike Zunino had one in May and missed about three weeks. There are 5½ weeks left in the regular season, and potentially weeks of playoffs after that, but Cash dismissed the possibility of Lowe returning, which was somewhat telling.
“He’s done,” Cash said.
Lowe’s rookie season started so well, and that’s without going back to the long-term deal he signed in spring training, guaranteeing him $24 million over six years with the potential to earn up to $49 million over eight.
They figured he would hit, based on his rise from Double A to Triple A to the majors the year before, and that he did.
He posted a .276 average and was leading the team with 16 homers and 49 RBIs through 76 games while also playing good defense, primarily at second base. He had played so well that he earned selection to the AL All-Star team as an injury replacement for the Angels’ Tommy La Stella who, coincidentally, also fouled a ball off his leg the same night, sustaining a fracture. Lowe also was a strong and, by some measures, the leading candidate for AL rookie of the year.
But it took longer than anyone expected for his right leg to heal, given that initially the Rays said he would only miss a few days.
“The whole season, basically from (July 2), has kind of become a disappointment,” Cash said. “He did everything we could ask in the first half for us. Very deserving of being on the All-Star team.
“Unfortunately, the shin injury comes out and now this as he’s getting closer.
“Just not ideal. We’re equipped with some guys that certainly can come in and continue to fill that void. We’ve been doing it, but we’re going to miss him.”
One way to look at it is that the Rays have played more than seven weeks without Lowe in the lineup and done okay, going 24-18. They actually have scored slightly more (4.81 runs per game compared to 4.59 before he went down), hit more homers (1.48 per game vs. 1.24) and posted a higher OPS (.761 vs. .750).
But some of that is attributable to players who improved, and some who were added, specifically Eric Sogard, who was acquired from Toronto on July 28 and has stepped in quite well.
Another way to look at it is that the Rays would be a better team, especially against some of the tough right-handed pitchers they will be facing, with Lowe.
You know, like Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke.
But just as they’ve weathered the long-term loss of Yandy Diaz, the repeated injuries to Joey Wendle and, most recently, the absence of outfielder Avisail Garcia, the Rays will try to find a way not to just make do without Lowe but do better.
That’s how they’ve handled it on the pitching side, overcoming the loss of three starters — Tyler Glasnow, Blake Snell and Yonny Chirinos — to injury and Brendan McKay pitching his way back to the minors, and they’re still very much in the playoff race.
There really is no other choice.
“Brandon was playing at an All-Star level,’’ general manager Erik Neander said. “It’s tough to lose his production. But first and foremost you feel for Brandon and what he’s been through.
“That being said, this is a resilient team, and they aren’t about to let up and feel sorry for themselves. It’s unfortunate, but they’ll keep going, keep competing. We’re not the only playoff-caliber team that’s down key players. Stay at it.’’
Contact Marc Topkin at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.