Rays star in episode of worst week

April 11, 2011 

That, Tampa Bay Rays fans, is what you call a bad week.

In baseball parlance, the first week of the 2011 season -- let’s extend it to 10 days now because things aren’t getting better -- was a wicked hop to the eye socket, a 95-mph fastball off the end of the bat on a 35-degree night.

It left waves of pain in its wake.

If only the 1-8 record the Rays will take with them to Boston today were the worst of the bad news.

If only the 62 innings it took for manager Joe Maddon’s team to grab its first lead of the season were the chief reason for alarm as the Rays face the next 24 weeks.

But they’re not.

The star player is out with an injury, and baseball’s version of the world’s most interesting man is just plain out -- forever.

Third baseman Evan Longoria’s oblique injury left a huge hole in the middle of an already challenged lineup. Though Longo will return in a few weeks, it’s unclear how the injury will affect his aggressive stroke for the rest of the season.

Friday’s stunning retirement of designated hitter Manny Ramirez in the shadow of a second drug suspension tossed a wet blanket on what remained of the hope for a contending -- or at least exciting -- team.

It was Ramirez, along with Johnny Damon, who provided optimistic fans reason to believe the Rays were serious about contending while rebuilding. Sure, Ramirez was past his prime, but he came at a bargain price of $2 million and seemed to be eager to please, not to mention whack his 600th career home run.

How bad is the lineup that remains?

Consider this: The Rays entered Sunday’s game hitting .167, 36 points below the second-worst hitting team in the majors, the Minnesota Twins. Their batting average was 53 points below what opponents are hitting off Philadelphia Phillies ace Roy Halladay, who sports a 0.69 earned-run average through two starts.

Oh, and Tampa Bay somehow found the only first baseman in captivity capable of limboing Carlos Pena’s batting average.

How low can Dan Johnson go? To paraphrase Johnny Cash, it’s 0.88, and it’s not risin’.

Remarkably, there have been bright spots. Outfielder Sam Fuld, who came over from the Cubs in the Matt Garza trade, is leading the league in stolen bases and already has made two highlight reel catches, including the superhero grab he made on the warning track Saturday in Chicago. B.J. Upton is hitting consistently and with power, while the starting pitching has been passable, though not as good as hoped.

But after suffering all the cost-cutting losses to its top-flight personnel, Tampa Bay entered the season a team needing everything to break its way to repeat as American League East champions.

It’s early, yes, but it’s safe to say the baseball gods have informed the Rays that not everything will break their way.

The good news? It can’t get much worse than the first 10 days.

That reminds of a funny greeting card my aunt Linda once sent me while I was away at basketball camp.

“Eat a live toad in the morning,” it read, “and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”

How was that toad, Rays?

Timothy R. Wolfrum, Herald sports editor, can be reached at 745-7052.

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