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I felt like I was watching a rerun of Major League, with rookie pitcher Charlie Sheen. Although lacking talent and money, the Indians improbably beat the Yankees to win the pennant.
In real life, the credits would stream after game seven of the 2008 ALCS. David Price, called up a month before from the minors, strikes out J.D. Drew with the bases loaded to end the eighth and makes quick work in the ninth, bringing the Rays to their first World Series in franchise history. After finishing in last place in 2007, Tampa Bay wins the American League Pennant on the backs of a young rookies and aging veterans. All we needed to complete the comparison is David Price meeting up with veteran Gabe Gross’s wife and Cliff Floyd talking to his bats.
Alas, the Rays continued operations this year and the proverbial other shoe dropped. The year started with injuries to 2B Akinori Iwamura and ttility guy Willy Aybar. After a lightning hot start, 3B Evan Longoria came up lame for June, July, and August. CF B.J. Upton, after hitting seven home runs last postseason, looked terrible throughout the year with a .231 average despite playing much of the year protected high up in the batting order. C Dioner Navarro was unspeakably bad, so much so that when the Rays traded for journeyman C Gregg Zaun I was excited. 1B Carlos Pena hit 39 homers…and 41 singles in an effort that culminated with 163 strikeouts and .227 average. Always nice to have your cleanup guy forsaking singles for an entire season. Thanks for the two extra stolen bases this year though Carlos!
The main problem for the Rays, which reared its head in the recent 11-game losing streak, is the moribund relief pitching. Troy Percival, the closer coming into the season, did nothing this year to earn his paycheck with a 6.35 era and a half-hearted rehab effort after a suspect injury. The Aussie Grant Balfour lost a little control and his ERA jumped three points and his WHIP a half a point. Former reliever David Price never came into his own in the starting rotation with a 4.60 ERA and a propensity to throw himself out of the game by the fifth inning. Other relievers Dan Wheeler, Randy Choate, and Lance Cormier engender no confidence in any clutch situation.
In fact, other than Jeff Niemann, Matt Garza, and J.P Howell, no Rays pitcher achieved up to his abilities. Scott Kazmir didn’t come into the season in shape and Tampa traded the disgruntled southpaw, and first ever Devil Ray ace, for cents on the dollar to Anaheim. The Scott Kazmir trade might be the first in a series of deals to shuffle the pitching staff.
Finally, blame must be placed on the goofball manager Joe Maddon. His insistence on stat and loyalty to struggling players put the team in a bind. It took Maddon over two months to realize that Upton won’t come out of his slump, a generous term if you saw B.J. hit. Pena remained at the four hole. SS Jason Bartlett, the team’s best player, remained at the nine slot although Maddon saw it as Bartlett leading off in the third inning. I swear I did not make that up.
Maddon over-analyzed pitcher match ups constantly and his golden pitch count rule of 100 made me wonder why I watch baseball to begin with if it boils down to simple numbers. His demeanor and antics no longer seemed cool and his hair dye trick bit him in the butt. On a recent road trip referred to as “The Ring of Fire” against division and wild card leaders Detroit, New York, and Boston, Joe Maddon dyed his black in honor of Johnny Cash to loosen up the clubhouse. The Rays finished the trip 3-14 with an 11-game losing streak. Matzeltoff, Joe Maddon, Matzeltoff.
Maybe the Rays leveled out to their potential this year, an above average team with a below average payroll. Or maybe the Rays needed this year to get another year of seasoning for their young pitching staff. I know the Rays wasted career years for Jason Bartlett and 2B Ben Zobrist along with a Carl Crawford renaissance.
This season doesn’t tarnish 2008’s Rays resurrection…though it might highlight just how special it was.