"When you're going through hell, just keep on going."
When Tampa Bay Rays manager uttered this Winston Churchill quote at the end of April, I imagine he believed the road through hell would be a day trip, rather than this cross-country journey the Rays are going through at the moment.
Slumps aren't anything new to the sport of baseball. Over the course of a 162-game season, teams are bound to go through some low lows and some high highs. It's the nature of the beast. The Rays certainly haven't been immune to this even through their better years since 2008.
But when you think things couldn't have gotten worse, something big happens. A tangible moment that re-energizes the team and helps them get back to their winning ways.
The difference in this season - they haven't turned it around, despite several of these "tangible moments." You could point to the 27-run outburst the Rays had against the New York Yankees back in April or the doubleheader sweep of the Boston Red Sox followed by a 14-inning win against the Yankees the next night or even the four-game winning streak sparked by three consecutive walk-off wins and a home sweep of the Red Sox.
Perhaps most troubling about the Rays struggles this season is the pre-season hype thrown around about this squad with experts predicting a World Series berth and talks of going "all-in" for 2014.
In the midst of the team's worst losing streak since an 11-game stretch in 2009, how would you describe this season for the Rays? Maddening? Infuriating? Disappointing?
Appropriate responses, I'm sure. But how would I describe it? Opportunity.
This 23-35 start to the season provides the Rays the unique opportunity to show what they're made of - more specifically Evan Longoria. Sure, he's lost games before and even gone through a worse losing streak (see 2009).
But nothing like this. This is his first experience of being a part of near the bottom of the MLB.
With the exception of Jake McGee, no one has played up to their talent level this season, especially Longoria.
His current offensive stats: .264 AVG., 5 HR, 23 RBI. Yikes.
"It's real frustrating," Longoria said after the Rays were shut out on Sunday. This is probably the worst we've been for an extended period of time for as long as I've been here. I think the morale is there, I don't feel like guys are coming to the ballpark expecting to lose and I don't think that will ever happen. I do think the belief is still there that this thing is going to turn around."
Longoria has been doing the right things. Reports have surfaced before games that he's out on the field getting extra BP in or fielding practice. I'm not questioning his work ethic. But for the "benchmark player" that Longoria wanted to be for the Rays franchise, his production has been disappointing. In May alone, he batted only .237 with two home runs and eight RBI.
Longo had just 8 RBI in May starting 29 games. Only other month in his career with less then 10 RBI was Aug 08 he played just 7 games. #Rays— Eric Sachs (@realericsachs) June 3, 2014
And right now, things are tough in the locker room it seems. After last night's loss, RHP Alex Cobb overtly expressed his frustrations with trying to keep taking away positives and even hinted at the possibility of players expecting to lose.
"I'm over taking positives away from games, Cobb said."That, obviously, isn't getting us anywhere...I definitely don't think anybody in this locker room is accepting defeat, but when we start doing this, I think it kind of comes with it."
No matter how many ways you can spin it, this team is in dire need of tangible and productive leadership. It's not enough just to say the right things, Longoria needs to start leading by example on the field, not just off of it. A single or two per game just isn't going to cut it. It's not enough to just be frustrated.
Of the remaining games in June, 15 of 26 will be at Tropicana Field, a perfect time for the Rays - and Longoria - to get back on track. At home this season, Longoria's numbers are much better - .340/.405/.505, 4 home runs and 14 RBI in 26 games.
Of course, Longoria should not be blamed for all of the Rays struggles. Starting pitching has been disappointing and the Rays are hitting .242 for the season. But it mainly falls on his shoulders to turn things around amidst the team's worst season since he came into the league. He committed to being the franchise's benchmark player in 2012. He asked for this responsibility and it's time for him to follow through.
The Rays need their franchise player now more than ever because as Longoria goes, the Rays go.
"A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty." - Winston Churchill