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Rays' greatest hope? The Red Sox
You’ve got to love Joe Maddon, waxing poetic about the dignity of his young Rays, the effort they are showing, their composure in the heat of a pennant race.
The Rays don’t have enough weapons. Not in their lineup. Not in their bullpen. Frankly, the Red Sox should be embarrassed that the wild-card race is even close.
Wednesday should have decided it, no?
The Rays began the day with a chance to be as little as a half-game out or as many as 3-1/2 games out when their split doubleheader with the Yankees were complete.
Well, Tampa Bay got swept, losing both games by 4-2 scores, watching the Yankees celebrate the clinching of the AL East title at the end of a long day in the Bronx.
And yet, the wild-card race still is not over.
The Red Sox — losers of a four-game series to the Orioles at Fenway Park for the first time since Aug. 2003 — will not allow it to end.
The Rays are 2-1/2 games back. The Angels are, too. And the Red Sox, after a day off Thursday, will play their next three games at Yankee Stadium, bless their collapsing souls.
The Rays, meanwhile, will play one more game in New York on Thursday night, starting their rookie phenom, left-hander Matt Moore, against Yankees righty Bartolo Colon and his batting-practice fastball.
Never mind that the Rays have scored just four runs in the first three games of this series, or that they were 1 for 14 with runners in scoring position in the two games Wednesday.
Just imagine the scene at Yankee Stadium this weekend. Yankees fans howling for their heroes to asphyxiate the Red Sox. Yankees hitters gleefully padding their stats, the division title secure.
There’s only one problem.
Who actually is going to catch Boston?
Maybe the Angels, who — after playing one more game in Toronto on Thursday — will play a season-ending six-game homestand against the Athletics and Rangers, with ace right-hander Jered Weaver starting the first and final games.
The Rays, at this point, are a tougher sell.
They’re incredibly gallant, a miracle of a team considering that left fielder Carl Crawford, first baseman Carlos Pena, right-hander Matt Garza and virtually the entire bullpen departed after last season.
If Maddon is not AL Manager of the Year, my brothers and sisters in the Baseball Writers Association of America ought to be given breathalyzers.
But the Rays, ahem, are 3-5 in their past eight games, not that anyone has even noticed.
Their bottom two hitters in Game 2 — right fielder Brandon Guyer and catcher Kelly Shoppach — were batting .206 and .169. And Shoppach actually hit a solo homer off CC Sabathia after the Rays fell behind, 2-0.
Oh, but there’s more.
Ben Zobrist, who missed Tuesday’s game after his wife Julianna gave birth to a baby girl, Kruse Allegra, arrived in the middle of Game 1, ready to pinch-hit.
He got his chance with two on and one out in the eighth with the Rays leading, 2-1, behind ace right-hander James Shields. And promptly struck out.
The Rays failed to score, and the Yankees rallied with three runs in the bottom half. Zobrist then proceeded to go 0 for 4 in Game 2, striking out three times and hitting into a double play.
“Our inability to get the big hit at the right time is just kicking our butt a little bit,” Maddon said in a classic understatement.
Yet, if the offense is death by a 1,000 paper cuts, the bullpen without injured closer Kyle Farnsworth is a different form of torture.
Moore could have helped in either or both games Wednesday. But the Rays need a spot starter at some point, and Maddon said that right-hander Jeff Niemann was “abnormally” sore after his last start. So, the decision was made to start Moore on Thursday night and push Niemann back to Saturday.
Howell has been effective against left-handed hitters this season. Maddon’s stats showed that Cano hits grounders 52 percent of the time against lefties. But Howell, who later admitted that he is wearing down, could not get the double-play ball he needed, and instead allowed a two-run, tie-breaking double.
The second game was just as painful.
The Rays tied the score in the seventh on a home run by Sean Rodriguez, ultimately denying Sabathia his 20th win. Entering the eighth, right-hander Jeremy Hellickson had retired 10 of his last 11 hitters. But even though he had thrown only 96 pitches, Maddon chose not to push him any further.
Long story short, Maddon wound up using four relievers in the inning, but not Joel Peralta, whom he was holding back to close. One thing led to another, and the Yankees’ Jorge Posada – unshackled for a day — hit a two-run, go-ahead, pinch-hit single off rookie righty Brandon Gomes.
“Somehow, some way we’ve got to step up in this last week’s worth of games and somehow find our offense,” Maddon said. “We do so many other things so well. Effort. Want-to. Caring. All that stuff is spectacular. It’s tremendous.”
It’s not enough. Or who knows, maybe it is.
Ask the Red Sox.