The playoffs are a crapshoot, and so far the Rays are rolling snake eyes.
What got to me in the end was the embarrassment. Plain, naked embarrassment for the players, the franchise, and us fans. We all know that the Rays are a much better team than they've been the last couple of nights. Our offense is inconsistent, but it can also be one of the most dynamic in the league - working the count, stealing bases, forcing throws, taking the extra base, and all that jazz. Our pitching staff isn't dominant, but it's good enough and deep enough that it can be dominant and gets the job done most days. Our front office is smart, our manager grinds every last drop of water out of the stones he's given, and our defense and bullpen are some of the best in the game. We just won the AL East again - I mean, this is a team that we should be proud of right now.
And yet....after watching that game, all I can feel is disappointment. The season isn't over yet, but it felt like it watching the Rays yesterday. James Shields was not the scapegoat of the game and his final lie belies how well he really pitched - Chad Qualls and the umpires letting multiple inherited runners score didn't help that - but he exemplified the Rays yesterday. He looked good in the beginning, striking out multiple batters in the first inning, but he also was a mess at times. Two hit batsmen. Falling off the mound. Looking bug-eyed and crazy on the mound, unsure of himself and caving in to the pressure. Freaking out about baserunners. I know the underlying statistics suggest Shields is better than his 5+ ERA - and I still believe he is - but if he doesn't believe that...well, you get a performance like last night.
The Rays looked flat, defeated, and ready to give up. They made some bonehead defensive mistakes - like Bartlett overrunning a foul pop late in the game - but the story of the game was their offense. C.J. Wilson is good, but he's no Cliff Lee; the Rays should have been able to hit him last night. The Rays hit the ball hard in the beginning of the game, but the Rangers' outfield was positioned almost perfectly, catching any ball that had a chance to fall in. None of our line drives were falling in for hits, we couldn't get a hit with runners in scoring position, and we struggled to even get baserunners. Luck wasn't with us, the umpires weren't giving us any breaks, and our players looked frustrated, but unable to channel their frustration into increased concentration and success. After getting three hits of Cliff Lee in the first inning of Game One, the Rays have only mustered five hits in the remaining 17 innings. Get the Man On!
The Rays broke my heart yesterday, and they've ruined a compelling narrative. The scrappy team that's taking down the Yankees! Best team in the East! Small budget success! Exciting young players! But now, instead of any of those things, you have the announcers railing on the Rays for the entire game. Analysts are criticizing the Rays' front office and Joe Maddon, without understanding how they run things. Fans of other teams are ripping our team apart, laying out all our weaknesses. What's with their offense? Why'd Joe Maddon start Shields? Why are their fans leaving so early? Ugh, ugh ugh.
This season is one of Andrew Friedman's masterpieces. He's created a team out of spit, shoe shine, and spare parts, and beat out the Yankees and Red Sox for another division title. But all of a sudden, the wheels have fallen off, right at the last possible moment. That stinks because it means all the great, awesome things about this team are being forgotten, and if the Rays lose this series, they'll be finishing the year on a big down note. And that's all the mainstream media will talk about for a really, really long time.
The postseason isn't over yet for the Rays, but they need to play much better in Texas if they don't want to get swept. There's still hope, though, and this team thrives on playing with its back to the wall. Hits would be a start, especially from Evan Longoria - as he goes, so goes the rest of our offense. Matt Garza pitched us through Game Seven with the Red Sox in 2008 - let's hope he can come up big again.
- Looking at the silver lining, Jeff Niemann pitched quite well out of the 'pen. Some people may use this as evidence that he should have started the game, but there's no way to tell how Niemann would have done when starting. Yes, he struck out four over three innings, allowing no earned runs, but he also only threw 40 pitches. Niemann's problem recently has stemmed from fatigue, and his velocity noticeably decreased by his final inning (94 MPH to 91 MPH). But hey, at least he pitched well.
- BJ Upton's double play was probably my highlight of the game. In the seventh, Michael Young started off the inning with a single. Josh Hamilton then his a deep fly to center, which Upton ran down and nabbed, and Young tried to advance to second. Upton threw a laserbeam that was right on the money, just getting Young before he hit second. Incredible.