ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- In the first two games of their division series with Texas, the Tampa Bay Rays have dispelled the notion that the 162-game American League East survival course automatically girds a team for the rigors of October.
That's what happened in 2008, when the young Rays pulled off a shocker and advanced all the way to the World Series. This year? Not so much. The Rays treated sellout crowds at Tropicana Field to Turn Back the Clock Day. But the product was more reminiscent of the Quinton McCracken-Paul Sorrento-Mike Kelly Devil Rays of 1998 than the inspirational team of two years ago.
The Rays were shut down 5-1 in the series opener by Texas' Cliff Lee, and there's no shame in that. And they were stymied by C.J. Wilson in a 6-0 loss in Game 2 on Thursday, which is understandable, given Wilson's impressive transition from the bullpen to the rotation this season.
It's the other stuff that galls. Like questionable umpiring calls that all seem to be going in Texas' favor. Or Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford and Tampa's other big hitters squeezing the bat in big spots. Or James Shields plunking weak-hitting Texas catcher Matt Treanor in the back with changeups twice to lead off innings Thursday. Or two errors in Wednesday's game, followed by some more shaky defense in Game 2. The Rays aren't just losing. They're coming unglued before our very eyes.
"The Rangers have outplayed us for two consecutive nights, so I've got to give them all the credit,'' Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said after the game. "I'm not going to defend it. We did not play well yesterday or today. It's not our game. We definitely have not put our best foot forward yet.''
If the season isn't going to end Saturday night at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, the Rays better find some change they can believe in -- and soon.
"We obviously have to do something different,'' Longoria said. "Change our approach. Get a big hit. Something has got to change. That's the bottom line. Somebody needs to get a big hit and try to break the silence.''
"I really thought [Michael Young] had been struck out, and it's really hard to yell from the dugout. Nobody can hear you, so I had to go to the mound and make my point.''
”-- Joe Maddon on getting ejected
It's not as if the Rays entered the postseason as an unstoppable force. They went 15-15 to end the regular season and hit a meager .245 in the final month. But they still finished tied for third in the league with 138 runs in that span, behind the same formula that carried them all season. The Rays drew a lot of walks, ran the bases with abandon and relied on their pitching to keep squeezing out victories.
That formula has been nonexistent in the first two games against Texas. The Rays have drawn only five walks against Lee, Wilson and the Rangers' bullpen. The Nos. 2 through 5 spots in the Tampa Bay order are hitting a combined .067 (2-for-30), and other than Ben Zobrist, no one in the Rays' order is hitting the ball with much authority.
During one stretch late in Thursday's game, when the Rays needed to grind out some high-quality at-bats to make a statement, Texas reliever Darren Oliver set down Jason Bartlett, B.J. Upton and Crawford on a total of four pitches. When the Rays try to be patient, they find themselves down 0-2 or 1-2. And when they come out hacking, they swing at pitcher's pitches and get themselves out.
"We started playing a little bad in September, and it seems like that play has carried over,'' Crawford said. "It's the whole team. We can't even get to our aggressive style. They've been doing a good job of stopping it before we can even get to it.''
Winning teams find a way to overcome setbacks and disadvantageous calls, and the Rays are looking rattled and distracted at the most pivotal moments. It happened Wednesday when Carlos Pena failed to do a very good acting job on an apparent hit-by-pitch in the first inning, and Lee wriggled out of a jam. In Game 2, a questionable call by first-base umpire Jerry Meals prompted the sellout crowd at Tropicana Field to strike up a chant of "Replay! Replay!'' and Maddon to go ballistic on the umpiring crew.
The Rays were hanging by a thin thread in the fifth inning when Michael Young stepped to the plate with Texas leading 2-0, runners on first and second, and one out. With the count 3-2, Young apparently tried and failed to check his swing on a slider from reliever Chad Qualls. But when plate umpire Jim Wolf signaled for help, Meals ruled Young hadn't gone around.
As Shields and teammate Matt Garza pounded the dugout rail in frustration, the seemingly inevitable followed. Young drove Qualls' next pitch 431 feet over the center-field fence for a three-run homer to give Texas a 5-0 lead, and the game was, for all practical purposes, history.
Maddon quickly emerged from the dugout and lit into Wolf, even though the call in question was made by Meals.
"I did it because I like Wolfy,'' Maddon said after the game. "Jimmy's a good guy.''
And the purpose of his rant?
"I really thought he had been struck out,'' Maddon said, "and it's really hard to yell from the dugout. Nobody can hear you, so I had to go to the mound and make my point.''
That wasn't the last emotional display by the Rays. After taking a borderline 3-2 pitch in the seventh, catcher Kelly Shoppach sprinted about 60 feet down the line only to turn and discover Wolf had rung him up. Shoppach waved his arms in disgust, cursed up a storm and generally reacted like a man who didn't much value the umpire's opinion.
Here's the reality: The Rays can gripe all they want about calls, but it's counterproductive to dwell on the umpires when they keep bringing their B-game to the park in a short series.
In the late innings, the 35,535 fans at Tropicana Field struck up a "Carl Crawford'' chant, as if they knew this would be his final home game as a Ray before free agency beckons this winter. And the Tampa fans practically trampled each other leaving their seats for the exits after the Rays went down meekly in the eighth.
As the Rays dressed for the team bus after the game, reliever Grant Balfour posted a message on the clubhouse white board that read, "It's Not Over. Gotta Win 2 in Texas. Let's Go!'' The Rays posted 12 win streaks of three games or longer during the regular season, so it's not out of the realm of possibility. But the Rangers went 51-30 in Arlington during the regular season, and the locals will be stoked for the team's first home playoff appearance since 1999.
"We can complain about things all day, but we'll be complaining about it on our way back home,'' Balfour said. "That's just the nature of it. But I know if we go and take that first one, it's going to get in their mind a little bit. And if we win two ballgames there, they're going to get a little bit concerned. So let's go there and do it.''
Said Shoppach: "I'll tell you this. We won't go quietly into the night. I guarantee you that. There's too much character in this clubhouse.''
The Rays showed both resourcefulness and character in winning 96 games during the regular season, but they've got a Texas-sized challenge facing them this weekend. All the talk in the world won't count for much if they can't muster up some hits.