Last week I wrote an article, citing the some of the good things for the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2009 season. In that article, I thanked the Rays management for bringing another winning season to the Fruit Dome in St. Petersburg. It appears I may have been a bit premature with my congratulations.
The Rays have gone 2-9 since the infamous white flag trade of Scott Kazmir. While I knew it signaled the end of the Rays run at the wild card, it's been a bit disturbing at times because it seems as if the Rays are disinterested in continuing the rest of the season.
It's understandable in a way. If management has given up the ghost, why should the players still play? When Andy Sonnanstine took the hill against the Boston Red Sox in the biggest series of the season and departed four innings and five runs later, the players knew it was over.
The question though is where is the mental toughness?
BJ Upton has never been known for his work ethic. Now that the Rays appear to be out of the running for postseason, he's gone back to his old ways of loafing. He's not the only one.
Of course, BJ Upton doesn't pitch. Tampa Bay's offense and starting pitching has been fine since the trade. It's the bullpen that is seemingly buckling under the workload that manager Joe Maddon thrust upon them this season.
That's really the maddening thing about Maddon.
Take last night as a prime example—rookie phenom Jeff Niemann is humming along, allowing nothing in seven innings. Maddon allowed him to start the eighth and Niemann gave up a lead off single to A-Rod.
Keep in mind, Niemann had scattered seven hits through his first seven innings and had reached 110 pitches. Instead of allowing Neimann to finish off the inning, Maddon went to the greatness that is Lance Cormier, who eventually allowed a hit and was the victim of a horrible throwing error by Rays first baseman Chris Richard.
The error allowed A-Rod to score and put Nick Swisher on base. Hideki Matsui would single and Cormier's work was done.
He was lifted for Brian Shouse who struck out Robinson Cano. Instead of leaving Shouse in, Maddon went back to matchup baseball, bringing in Grant Balfour to face Jorge Posada with men at the corners and one down.
As he's seemingly done all season, Balfour gave the go-fer ball to Posada, who promptly deposited it into the launching pad also known as right field in new Yankee stadium. Game over, losing streak hits eight.
It's been this way all season for Maddon and these decisions are what firings are made of. But how can you fire the man that led the Tampa Bay Rays to the World Series? Quick answer—you can't.
Tampa Bay is now a pedestrian 72-68 with 22 games remaining in the season. The Rays can play below .500 at 10-12 and still get to 82 wins and secure their second consecutive winning season. With 13 games against the likes of Baltimore, Toronto, and Seattle (nine at home), you'd like to think Tampa Bay could find ten victories some where in there.
Playing for pride or being a spoiler never seemed to appeal much to baseball players, so the question begs do the Rays care about having a winning season when the playoffs are likely out of the equation?
By Tampa Bay standards, a winning season is something to be proud of. Heck, if the seasons were flip flopped, the entire town would be buzzing about how the Rays finally have a good shot at a winning season instead of being disappointed they couldn't contend with the nearly billion dollars of payroll dropped by the Yankees and Red Sox.
That's a good thing. The bar has been raised because fans saw it was possible.
Some pundits are calling Tampa Bay "One Year Wonders." Those who do that clearly don't know baseball.
Tampa Bay is a team brimming with talent. In many ways, the 2009 Rays were a better baseball team the the AL champions. Offensively, starting pitching—all better. Where they struggled and what became the Achilles heel for the season was the bullpen and the steady Rays defense did not reach the same level of performance.
Plays made routinely last year are being botched for errors in '09. It forces more pitches for the starters, more outs to make, and more opportunities for the opponents to do damage as the Yankees did last night.
No, Tampa Bay wasn't a fluke. They'll be back next year continuing to be a thorn in the sides of the Yankees and Red Sox. The two empires had to spend multi-millions to overtake the minimum wage Rays in 2009.
As Tampa Bay's pitching stabilizes and they hopefully find a closer (come on, Stu, dig into that wallet—it will be paid back in playoff money), the young talented studs will continue to grow and maintain the Rays for several years (at least until they hit free agency).