ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A turnaround can’t be manufactured. It must be organic, real, part coincidence and part skill. Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon, his team in a swift spiral, is searching to capture lightning in a hurry.
“There’s got to be this organic moment within the group that all of the sudden just pops,” said Maddon, after the Rays lost 2-0 to the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday at Tropicana Field, dropping them to a major league-worst 4-12 since owning the American League East lead by percentage points after play Aug. 24. “Then you’re just going to see it take off again. But it can’t be contrived or fabricated.”
Until that happens, the Rays’ search continues. They are running out of time. The loss Tuesday dropped them to 8 1/2 games behind the Red Sox in the American League East, but with 19 left, the division race looks like a losing cause.
Their greatest concern: Hanging on to the second wild-card spot for dear life with the Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians, New York Yankees and Kansas City Royals closing in carrying postseason visions of their own.
Once, the Rays were hunters. Now, they’re hunted.
“It’s a bad time to be playing bad,” Rays center fielder Desmond Jennings said.
The Rays look lost, and the numbers prove it. They are 3-9 since Aug. 29. Since July 31, they have averaged 3.17 runs per game (fewest in the majors), hit 28 home runs (fewest in the AL) and batted a scant .220 with runners in scoring position.
There are no easy answers. A tense, silent postgame clubhouse showed as much.
“We can’t dwell on it,” Rays left-hander David Price said with a blank stare.
“If we dwell now, we’ll be hanging out in October.”
It’s trending that way. This Boston series had long been circled as a large one for the Rays, but after a rough 3-7 West Coast swing that ended Sunday, it became important for a different reason. It became about survival.
When threatened late in the season, teams react to turmoil in different ways. Character is revealed: Some stabilize, some rally, some continue to sink.
The 2013 Rays’ legacy remains to be discovered, but the next three weeks will determine how we remember them. They’ll either be recalled for gaining traction after a late-season swoon or for slipping into an offseason that seemed unlikely to start before mid-October (at the earliest) after posting a 21-5 record in July.
Once, they were a team of the offensive “swarm,” a group that paired strong starting pitching with stellar defense to rise among the AL’s best. Now, they’re fighting themselves as much as the threats breathing down their necks in the AL wild-card race.
In this slump, they face two opponents each day: players in another uniform and themselves.
“We go out everyday thinking we’re going to win,” Jennings said. “We haven’t been winning, but that’s still the mindset. Every day we come in, we’ve got confidence in ourselves.”
That might be, but Tuesday was the latest example of how little seems to go right for Tampa Bay these days. Price was terrific through four innings. He began by striking out Dustin Pedroia and Shane Victorino swinging, and he showed little signs of wear from there. Entering the fifth, he had faced the minimum 12 batters.
Then on pitch No. 66 of a career-high 127 for Price, Mike Napoli cracked an 82-mph change-up against the wall in center field, inches above Jennings’ glove. Momentum for the visitors continued from there: Jonny Gomes singled to center, and two batters later, Jarrod Saltalamacchia hit a sacrifice fly to center that scored Gomes from third.
That was all Boston needed. Red Sox right-hander Clay Buchholz was strong in his first start since June 8 against the Los Angeles Angels (five innings, no runs and three hits). The bullpen held steady with Craig Breslow, Junichi Tazawa and Koji Uehara closing the door.
“We’ve been that group recently where we’ve had people on base but just can’t score,” Maddon said.
“There’s not a whole lot you can do right now except keep playing, keep grinding it out. There’s no extra work to be done — just go out there and play.”
That was the reality facing the Rays after their latest loss, their postseason prospects becoming more uncertain by the day. There are no shortcuts, no easy repairs. Uehara hugged Saltalamacchia and chest-bumped Napoli after striking out Matt Joyce to end the night.
A short time later, a small group of Red Sox fans stood and cheered behind Boston’s dugout as players left the field. Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” played over the loudspeakers.
This late in the season, the Rays must prove they still have fight left in them.