ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — This Tampa Bay Rays season, already a lesson in attrition, has become about evolving expectations. It began with lofty hopes of advancing deep into October. It became about crawling through the desert of late May and most of June.
Now it’s a study in how momentum, in those rare moments when it’s captured, remains fragile yet must be maintained. Nothing is more imperative than preserving that elusive power when the Rays clutch it in their weary knuckles, as they did following a 9-2 trip through Baltimore, New York and Detroit from June 27-July 6.
Monday, the Kansas City Royals, led by bulldog right-hander James Shields, halted the Rays’ good vibes and brought to mind dreary days not long ago when Tampa Bay bore the burden as the majors’ worst team. This 6-0 whipping at Tropicana Field was decisive and dominant, every bit the trouncing the score suggests.
It’s a result the Rays must avoid if they hope to beat history and threaten for a postseason berth. It’s an outcome they must flip often if they hope to make their season meaningful past July and live for August and beyond.
"I want to give our guys a little bit of a mulligan," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "It was like 4:30 in the morning, I think, when they all got to sleep (after arriving from Detroit). Coming off of a really emotional road trip, our goal is to win series, and it’s still within our reach the next two days."
The next two days will reveal if the Rays’ most recent trip was more than a glimmer of light in a dark first half. Mostly everything about their romp through the Orioles, Yankees and Tigers seemed like an "aha" moment, confirmation that a pulse was present at the bottom of the American League East.
Yes, there’s fight left in a group left for dead by many.
None of that was present in the start of a six-game homestand Monday. Call it a mulligan. Call it predictable after the Rays flew into the Tampa Bay region shortly after 3 a.m. Monday. Call it men being mortal, with fatigue a factor after an emotional high following their recent miles traveled.
But baseball is blind to the excuses. It chews up the unprepared on any given night, just as Shields gobbled up the Rays by allowed just three hits and striking out 10 in seven surgical innings.
Tampa Bay was outhit a whopping 14-4 after cranking out 19 hits in its victory over Detroit on Sunday. Kansas City led 4-0 after the eighth inning, and long before, one run looked enough for victory. The Rays looked tired.
"It sucked," Rays centerfielder Desmond Jennings said. "I don’t know what to say. He pitched great, man. He’s a good pitcher for a reason."
Shields became the latest tormentor, but this act has been witnessed in the Rays’ 11 other shutouts this year. Everyone in their clubhouse understands they’re in a cruel race against both time and odds. There’s little margin for error.
In the 2000s, only three teams had faced a deficit of 8 1/2 games or greater entering play on July 7 and advanced to the postseason. The Rays were a season-worst 18 games below .500 on June 10, and just a pair of teams since 1900 has clawed back to an even mark after reaching that depth, the 2004 Rays and 2006 Florida Marlins.
The Rays’ narrative had changed before right-hander Jake Odorizzi tossed the first pitch Monday. There was hope. There was optimism, rightly so after they crawled from the bottom of the AL East for the first time since May 28.
But Monday’s question created new questions: Do the Rays have more fight in them? Can they overcome an opponent that has mastered them in nine of the past 11 meetings since the start of 2013?
Is another rally on the horizon or more familiar long nights to come?
"Just bad circumstances, I guess," said Odorizzi, who allowed two runs and six hits in six innings. "But all the series we played on the road, we played fantastic. I guess we were kind of due for one of these games, but we can just as easily get back into the groove that we were in. I don’t think this game is really going to set us back much in the long run."
Their expectation: Win series. Win them now.
Their momentum: In need of revitalization once again.