Commentary

Against all odds, Rays keep hanging on

Strong starting pitching main reason Tampa Bay could remain playoff contender

Originally Published: July 20, 2011
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

It was a crushing loss, 1-0 in 16 innings Sunday night, during which the Tampa Bay Rays did not advance a runner to third base and went down 1-2-3 in 12 innings. When it was over, Rays manager Joe Maddon sat in his office, at nearly 3 a.m. Monday, saying, "The take-away from this game is that we can play with the Red Sox, and they know it. We can play with the Yankees, and they know it. This is a temporary inconvenience. We are not going away.''

[+] EnlargeJeremy Hellickson
Kim Klement/US PresswireJeremy Hellickson has been consistently effective in his first full season in the majors this year.

Before that game, you would have believed him because Maddon is so genuine and so believable, and so is his gritty, gutsy, galvanized team. And yet, sometimes something happens -- a moment, a play or a game -- that makes you wonder. That came Sunday night against the mighty Red Sox when the Rays, who have to play almost perfectly to win, who can't make a mistake or they almost surely will lose, lost a winnable game that they badly needed to win, becoming the first team in 31 years to not advance a runner past second base in a game of at least 16 innings. That game, and the one that followed, made you believe, no matter how convincing their brilliant manager might be, that the Rays simply lost too much firepower, too many weapons, to get back to the playoffs in 2011.

It is a miracle they are still in the race this deep into the season. They are averaging just over three runs per game at home. They have used nine cleanup hitters; the one they used Sunday and Monday night, Casey Kotchman, didn't make the club out of spring training. Their shortstops are hitting just over .200. They are so dependent on third baseman Evan Longoria, and he isn't the same hitter he has been, in part because of a nerve issue in his left foot that likely will require surgery after the season. They need help at the trade deadline, but they are in no position financially to make a major move, but the two teams they are chasing in the American League East, Boston and New York, are.

A snapshot of the vast difference between the Rays and Yankees came Monday night when the Rays lost a 4-1 lead, then lost the game 5-4 on a bases-loaded walk in the ninth inning. After playing until nearly 2 a.m. Monday, the Rays had to scramble to get their roster ready for a crucial four-game series with the Bombers. Catcher Robinson Chirinos and pitcher Alex Torres were still en route from Rochester, N.Y., when Maddon was pondering his lineup at 4 p.m. Monday. "Sometimes,'' he said with a laugh, "you have to go American Legion.'' The two players arrived at Tropicana Field at 6 p.m. for a 7:10 p.m. game; Chirinos made his major league debut that night as the starting catcher, and Torres made his debut as the reliever that began the ninth inning of a 4-4 tie: two players that had never played a big league game were the battery in the ninth of a critical game against the Yankees, and neither player was in uniform until just over an hour before the game.

"Welcome to the big leagues,'' Rays reliever Cesar Ramos said, smiling.

The Rays are a big league team in every way, but they don't play in a big league ballpark. Monday night, a bank of lights down the first base line at Tropicana Field went out in the fifth inning, delaying the game for 18 minutes. It was not the first time that that has happened. "They have to get the hamsters to run a little faster,'' Maddon said with a laugh, and without a trace of anger. The previous night, a foul ball hit by the Rays' Sean Rodriguez broke a light above the field, chards of glass rained down on the field like confetti; some of the glass was so hot, it melted the artificial turf. The day before, a ball hit a catwalk in fair territory, Boston third baseman Kevin Youkilis caught the ball in foul territory down the left field line, but the ground rules state any ball that hits that catwalk is a dead ball, and the pitch was replayed. And this is the ballpark occupied by a team that is trying to catch two of the most historic teams in baseball history.

"Never be surprised,'' said Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey, "by anything that happens under the Big Top.''

Big Top? What happened Sunday night/Monday morning had to be a first in baseball history. Alex Cobb, one of the Rays' exceptional young starting pitchers, was recalled from Triple-A Durham to start Monday night, but only after he was medically cleared after being hit in the head with a line drive during batting practice a few nights earlier. "They made me wear a batting helmet during BP the next night,'' Cobb said, laughing. He was in uniform, but not active for Sunday night's game against Boston, so he left the ballpark at 6 p.m. to go to his hotel to take a nap. He came back to the Trop during that night's game, which lasted 16 innings, and then, as part of his pitching ritual, he likes to have a light throwing session the day before his start, so he went down to the bullpen and threw at 2 a.m.

"I wasn't about to tell him no,'' Maddon said. "Whatever works.''

A lot has worked for the Rays in recent years. In 2008, they went to the World Series. Last year, they won the AL East for the second time in three years. But after the season, they lost nine key players, and joined the 2005 Marlins as the only teams in history to lose a 15-game winner (Matt Garza), a 25-home run man (Carlos Pena), a 40-steal man (Carl Crawford) and a 40-save man (Rafael Soriano) in one offseason. The Marlins haven't contended since, but the Rays are trying to contend with a lineup and a bullpen that was assembled with bailing wire by Maddon and GM Andrew Friedman, who is so young and so smart, rumors persist that some other teams (the Astros?) want him as their GM.

But instead of feeling sorry for themselves about losing so many important players, the Rays just figure it out. "In spring training,'' Maddon said, "I told them that we're going to have to find another way. That was our motto: Another Way. To talk about all the guys we lost would denigrate the players we still had.'' At the top of his lineup card before every game, Maddon writes one word: irreverent. It is a reminder that his team, and its small-market organization, cannot play safely or cautiously and must constantly push every situation if it's going to have any chance to compete with Boston and New York.

The Rays entered spring training with no idea what their bullpen would look like having lost Soriano, set-up man Joaquin Benoit and three other useful relievers. "It is what I think about when I ride my bike every morning,'' Maddon said early in spring training. He still hasn't named a closer -- "why let semantics get in the way of a good thing?'' Maddon said -- but it obviously has been a reclamation project, Kyle Farnsworth, 35, a journeyman reliever who, from all accounts, didn't have the stomach to close until this year.

"None of this happens, none of it,'' Maddon said, "without Kyle.''

Farnsworth refined his cutter two years ago, giving him something else to go with his nearly mid-90s fastball and his slider. "And I'm throwing my sinker more, something to go with my four-seamer, I'm just mixing my pitches more,'' Farnsworth said. One teammate said of Farnsworth, "He is so much calmer out there this year. Last year, he was like a caveman.'' Added Farnsworth: "I have matured. If I give up a hit, or get in trouble, I go after the next guy and not worry about the previous guy.'' He has 18 saves in 21 tries and has allowed 30 hits, seven walks and 28 strikeouts in 38 2/3 innings.

None of this happens without the Rays' defense. On Maddon's desk in his office is a replica Gold Glove, a symbol of how important defense is in the game, especially to the Rays. Next year, the Gold Glove will be placed in the middle of the clubhouse as a constant reminder to the players. Next spring training in Port Charlotte, Fla., a giant Gold Glove will be painted on a wall next to one of the fields. The Gold Glove winners in club history will have their names painted on that wall. Maddon says Major League Baseball should award a team Gold Glove award every year to further emphasize the importance of defense.

[+] EnlargeB.J. Upton
Kim Klement/US PresswireCenter fielder B.J. Upton has shown flashes of greatness, but overall has failed to live up to expectations.

Running the defense is third base coach Tom Foley, who is the first to congratulate a player after a good defensive play, and the first to greet a player that made a mental mistake. "Everyone is going to make errors,'' he said. "What really irritates me is when a player isn't thinking, and we don't get an out that we should get.'' The Rays run more elaborate shifts than any other AL team -- again, irreverent.

A few years ago, Maddon played a four-man outfield and a three-man infield against Boston's David Ortiz. Last Friday night, the Rays played the shift against Ortiz, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and J.D. Drew in the same game. Foley said he gets full support from Maddon, who "likes to think kind of out of the box.''

"We embrace the information,'' Maddon said. "If we're giving the left side of the infield to a guy, and he hits a single there, good for him. He might hit a ground ball there instead of a hitting a home run to right. We're trying to make him do something that he doesn't want to do.''

None of this happens without terrific starting pitching. The Rays have the fifth-best starting pitching ERA in the AL (3.55), and have pitched so many innings with mostly David Price, James Shields, Wade Davis, Jeremy Hellickson, Jeff Niemann and Cobb, the bullpen had thrown the second-fewest innings in the AL (238). "As long as you have five major league starters,'' Maddon said, "you always have a chance.'' The Rays have six.

But in the end, the Rays simply don't have enough firepower offensively to make a run at the Red Sox or the Yankees. Longoria needs help in the lineup, and not enough help comes from center fielder B.J. Upton, who is maddeningly erratic, a tremendous athlete, a great talent, but far from a great baseball player. He is 26 years old, and despite a recent surge at the plate, he is still hitting .237 with 95 strikeouts in 91 games played. The mechanics of his swing -- too many moving parts -- might never allow him to be a premier hitter. That, plus the fact that he will soon price himself out of the Rays' market, is why the Rays are listening to offers for him and likely won't have to be overwhelmed in order to trade him.

The terrible losses to the Red Sox Sunday night and Yankees Monday night might change the way the Rays have to look at themselves at the trade deadline. Are they buyers or sellers? After the Yankees leave town Thursday, the Rays will play their next 20 games against teams with losing records: the Royals, A's, Mariners and Blue Jays. But they will still have 19 games left against the Red Sox and Yankees, including 13 of their final 19 games.

It doesn't look good for the Rays from here, not with their offense, not in their division. So, they'll just have to find another way to win. No organization does that better than the Rays.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and is available in paperback. Click here to order a copy.

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