As Season Slips Away, Tampa Bay Rays Figure Out What’s Next
By David Egbert
We can discuss for a while which loss of the weekend series versus Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim was worse, but one thing is for sure: the blame belongs to the offense. Yes, I know that neither Jeremy Hellickson nor Jake Odorizzi got to the fifth inning, but that is going to happen sometimes and good teams find a way to win at least one of those games. It wasn’t like the Rays didn’t have chances. On Friday night, they had a runner on second with only one out in the eighth and left him there. If that wasn’t bad enough, down 5-3, they had the bases loaded, nobody out and the top of the order up in the bottom of the ninth. Two strikeouts and a fly out later the game was over. Not to be outdone, Sunday’s lineup left 13 runners in scoring position in a 7-5 loss.
It seems like a broken record but this team can’t buy a clutch RBI. On Friday and Sunday, the top four hitters in the Rays lineup accounted for one run batted in. The team’s top RBI producer, Evan Longoria, is on pace to drive in 82 runs. Next in line is James Loney, and nobody else has even 45 RBIs (a 66-RBI pace) at this point. In Friday and Sunday’s games, the Rays had the bases loaded and less than two outs three times. They plated one run on a sacrifice fly. As a team, the Rays are hitting a league worst .230 with the bases loaded. “Bases loaded is not a good play for us”, said Joe Maddon. That’s a huge understatement! As you probably remember, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. The lineup was to be solid one through nine. The team finally had a catcher that could hit and the DH position was to be covered by a rotation of outfielders. Desmond Jennings was going to decide whether he wanted to hit for average or power. Evan Longoria was going to return to MVP form. Sports Illustrated picked the Rays to win the American League East.
So where do the Rays go from here? Joe Maddon’s approach is to dress the players up for a theme trip and send them to the West Coast to play the best team in baseball, the Oakland Athletics, as if nothing happened. Stuart Sternberg could pick up the phone and tell Andrew Friedman to get ready for a big offseason fire sale and a seriously reduced 2015 budget. Or the Rays’ entire staff could sit down and try to figure out how this season went so terribly wrong and what players can adjust their game to go from making outs to producing runs.
The easy way out is to say there were too many injuries early in the season. However, while Wil Myers, David DeJesus and Ryan Hanigan have missed nearly half of the team’s games, only DeJesus was hitting and he’s a table setter, not an RBI guy. The problem is clearly about the lack of production when it counts from players like Jennings, Zobrist, Joyce, and Longoria. They need to contribute game-winning hits, and that simply isn’t happening. The answer to why not seems to go beyond lack of talent. Is Maddon’s “it’s always a sunny day” attitude not right for these situations? Is this a “small ball” team and Maddon and Derek Shelton can’t adjust? Do they need a David Ortiz kind of hitter that can carry a team on his back? The answers aren’t easy.
Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe wrote a piece on the Red Sox that includes the following quote by Sox GM Ben Cherington.
"“No matter how we think the team should be playing or could play over the last 60 games or so, the math is against us. If we are really serious about building another team and trying to become as good as we can as quickly as we can, what we need to do is to find out the rest of the way how to do that.”"
I agree with his approach and personally think that the Rays’ next two months will be a tryout camp to figure what the Rays’ offensive strategy should be and which players will fit into that. While the Tampa Bay Rays will continue their fleeting pursuit of a playoff spot, the key to the long-term health of the team will be to understand what went wrong to put them in this position and how to avoid that in future years. Even if these next two months lead nowhere, at least the Rays will have a chance to figure out which players belong on their team as they pursue a postseason berth next season.