So, what happened? What went wrong with the defending American League champion Tampa Bay Rays?
Why wasn’t ’09 > ’08?
There is the obvious: The New York Yankees opened the vault last winter, and the Boston Red Sox restocked at the trade deadline.
Yet, even with those not-so-surprising developments, the Rays stayed within striking distance of the wild card-leading Red Sox until the 11-game losing streak left them for dead.
Pat Burrell gave them nothing. The Big Three — James Shields, Matt Garza and Scott Kazmir — didn’t take the anticipated steps forward. The bullpen buckled under the stress. B.J. Upton didn’t hit. Dioner Navarro didn’t hit. The Gabes didn’t hit. Aki got hurt.
The Rays couldn’t win the close games. They couldn’t win on the road.
They set single-season records for home runs, steals, run scored and extra-base hits in a season, yet failed to score more than three runs in 70 games.
“It’s hard to find a rhyme or reason for what it was. It just didn’t seem like it was in the cards, because we had all the pieces in place,” said Ben Zobrist, who took advantage of the injury to Akinori Iwamura and became an All-Star second baseman with a breakout season at the plate.
The World Series hangover that the Rays tried so hard to avoid left them 9-14 after April.
“I think that’s kind of where our season went wrong, at the beginning of the year,” Shields said. “I don’t think we came out with as much fire as we needed.”
Manager Joe Maddon would point to the bad April as the reason the Rays were chasing the Yankees for the division and the Red Sox for the wild card until the stretch against the Detroit Tigers, Red Sox and Yankees that produced the 11-game losing streak.
“Bad scheduling,” Maddon joked.
The Rays reached the World Series in 2008 on the strength of their pitching and defense. But Shields and Garza finished with losing records, and Kazmir was traded in late August to clear $22 million in payroll. Rookie Jeff Niemann was the best starter and will finish with the most victories. David Price, who began the year in Triple-A to protect his arm, is the other starter to finish with a winning record.
Aside from a stretch during the middle of the season when it was the best in baseball, the bullpen was shaky. The oft-injured Troy Percival didn’t last long as the closer, and Jason Isringhausen, brought in as Percy insurance, soon joined him on the disabled list.
The starters didn’t work deep enough in games early in the season, and this bullpen quickly proved it could not withstand the extra work.
The Rays couldn’t sustain winning streaks, which meant every charge at the Red Sox was followed by a retreat.
Then Carlos Peña was lost for the year with two broken fingers, and so went the heart of the team.
Carl Crawford rebounded from an injury-plagued 2008 to have his best all-around season. Evan Longoria appears two years into what could be a Hall of Fame career. Jason Bartlett showed he is more than a pretty glove.
Zobrist proved he is more than an every day player, he’s an every day threat. Niemann, Price and Wade Davis appear ready to give the Rays one of the best rotations in the big leagues.
“There have been some good things this season,” Maddon said.
Yes. But when the goal was to defend the titles and get back to the playoffs, good is not good enough.
“It seemed like (2008) was easy, but it really was pretty hard,” J.P. Howell said. “But I think we’ll end up learning more from this season than last year.”