In most baseball cities, fans criticize the manager. Around here, fans are criticized more than the manager. Tampa’s funny like that.
We’ve all heard the laments about Rays fans. They don’t care. They don’t show up. They don’t appreciate Evan Longoria’s VORP. They don’t love the game enough to battle the (allegedly) brutal St. Petersburg traffic to watch one of the most exciting teams in baseball.
But here’s what I can tell you: Tropicana Field was sold out for the first two games of the American League Division Series. Mind you, these were midweek afternoon games, but the crowds were enthusiastic, despite the home team’s poor play.
And in the eighth inning on Thursday — near the end of the Rays’ dismal 6-0 loss to the Texas Rangers — the fans’ awareness produced a moment that was both poignant and sad.
B.J. Upton led off with a routine grounder to third, which wasn’t surprising, because he’s had a terrible series. So it was now Carl Crawford’s turn to bat. Then the fans managed to do what their team had not. They rose to the occasion, thanks to some astute mathematics.
Odds of a Rays comeback in Game 2, with just five outs to go?
Odds of the Rays going to Texas — where these Rangers own a .630 winning percentage — and taking two straight?
Odds of Crawford, a free agent, returning to the Rays next season?
Uh, about the distance between Anaheim and the Bronx.
Multiply a fraction by a fraction by a fraction and you get something that resembles Upton’s batting average in the ALDS (.000).
Thousands of fans figured this out on the spot. They were watching what could very well have been Crawford’s final home at-bat as a Ray.
The ovation started close to home plate and spread gradually throughout the stadium. By the time Crawford stepped into the box, at least 30 or 40 percent of the fans were on their feet.
It was loud. It was heartfelt. It was very noticeable.
Just not to Crawford. He didn’t react.
“I was trying to focus on getting a hit,” Crawford would say. “I didn’t realize that.”
Actually, that’s understandable. Hitting a baseball in the major leagues requires complete concentration. Generally speaking, batters shouldn’t pay attention to what fans are doing as they prepare to hit. Besides, what was Crawford supposed to do? Step out, doff his helmet and effectively say, “Yep, we stink. It’s going to be a sweep. And by the way, I’m outta here.”
Yet, much like this series, there was something unfulfilling in the way it unfolded. Darren Oliver threw one pitch. It was a slider. Crawford tapped it to second for a groundout that couldn’t have been more routine.
“If I knew they (were) going to be saying thank you, I would have tried to have a better at-bat, so my last at-bat wouldn’t be a groundout to second base,” he said, smiling ruefully. “I definitely didn’t have that on my mind.”
Two days ago, who could have imagined any of this?
The Rays finished with the best record in the AL. They won the toughest division in baseball. They had home-field advantage until the World Series. They had Crawford, one of the game’s most dynamic talents. They had Longoria, proclaimed to be healthy after missing the season’s final 10 games with a leg injury. They had Rafael Soriano, the league saves leader.
Now? After two unsightly losses in a 30-hour span, they’re on the brink of elimination.
There are renewed complaints about the umpires after a crucial call went against the Rays for a second straight day, but even Tampa Bay fans would agree that this series stands precisely where it should. Sure, Michael Young went around on what should have been a third strike — right before his home run gave Texas a 5-0 lead.
But the Rangers were ahead by two runs before Young stepped to the plate. The Rays were shut out on two hits. Makes it tough to cry foul.
“I’m not going to defend it,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “We did not play well.”
The Rays have given us one of the most charming stories in baseball over the past three seasons. They won the pennant in 2008, proving that underdogs have hope in an industry dominated by the Yankees and Red Sox. They disappointed in 2009, but retooled in 2010, thanks to a scrappy offense, sturdy-enough pitching and the endearing Maddon.
But the owner has declared that the payroll will go down, Crawford says he’s clinging to a “little ounce of hope” he’ll be back, and we all have an idea of where this might go. Are we watching the 1992 Pittsburgh Pirates, who said goodbye to Barry Bonds and haven’t had a winning season since? Or are these the 2007 Minnesota Twins, who parted with Johan Santana and Torii Hunter but won division titles in two of the next three seasons?
Either way, it’s almost next year. Based on what I’ve seen this week, the Rays have virtually no chance to win this series. They’re batting .125 as a team. During the regular season, a high walk rate was the salve for a strikeout-prone lineup. Well, they ran into the wrong team. The Texas pitchers — most notably Cliff Lee and C.J. Wilson — are throwing quality strikes and keeping the walks to a minimum.
It looks like the Tampa Bay hitters are bouncing between a couple philosophies. They wonder if they should “work the count.” Maybe it’s better to “stay aggressive.” By the time they decide, it’s too late. The Rays have already fanned 23 times in this series, and here’s the really bad news: Colby Lewis, the Game 3 starter, struck out more hitters this year than either Lee or Wilson.
So, maybe it’s a good thing the Rays fans gave Crawford his ovation on Thursday. They greeted him again when he jogged out to left field for the top of the ninth.
"CARL CRAW-FORD! CARL CRAW-FORD!"
The salute was heartfelt. This time, Crawford heard it.
“Today was really special,” he said. “I’ve never had that done before. … I really appreciate that. It was a special moment for me. Hopefully this wasn’t the last game.”
Sorry, Carl. It probably was. And now the fans in Tampa Bay are left to wonder if this was the end of more than a season.