Perfect game throws Rays a wild card curve

Perfect game throws Rays a wild card curve

Published Aug. 15, 2012 9:39 p.m. ET

So much for all those waves the Tampa Bay Rays have been
making in the AL wild card race lately.

Wednesday afternoon in Seattle, it was more like a massive belly flop.

And in this case, the big splash at Safeco Field was made by brilliant
Mariners' right-hander Felix Hernandez, whose perfect game in a 1-0 victory
suddenly leaves the Rays floundering again.

And just when it looked like it was safe to get back in the water.

Only two days ago, Tampa Bay was riding a seven-game winning streak, in sole
possession of the wild card lead and starting to talk about making a run at the
first-place Yankees in the AL East.

Their bats had finally awakened with the arrival of slugger Evan Longoria back
from half the season on the disabled list, they'd started a crucial 10-game
road trip with a series sweep of Minnesota and a series-opening win in Seattle on
Monday night.

But then came their ninth-inning disintegration Tuesday. After taking the lead
in the top of the first and holding it to the bottom of the ninth, the Rays
kicked away a game they should have won — surrendering two runs in the bottom
of the ninth when the Mariners cashed in on a Carlos Pena throwing error and
two hits off normally invincible closer Fernando Rodney to lose 3-2.

Instead of being buoyed by the possibility of a third straight series sweep,
they were now in a rubber match against one of baseball's best pitchers —
demoralized and drained from the giveaway the night before.

Judging by how masterful Hernandez looked from the start, the Rays never stood
a chance against him under any circumstance — and certainly not with two of
their hottest hitters these days, Desmond Jennings and Jeff Keppinger, getting
a rest day until pinch-hitting duty in the ninth.

The 2010 AL Cy Young Award winner had Tampa Bay batters swinging at air all day
long, throwing the third perfect game against Tampa Bay in the past four seasons.
The previous two came courtesy of left-handers: Mark Buehrle of the White Sox
in 2009, Oakland's Dallas Braden in 2010, a season that former Rays' righty
Edwin Jackson also pinned an eight-walk no-hitter on them, as well.

For the record, the Rays have now suffered more perfect games than any
franchise in major league history — three of the all-time 23 (an uncomfortable
13 percent) and a dubious claim to fame that underscores their historic
futility in the hitting department.

Hernandez, who has hurled four complete-game shutouts since June 28, overshadowed
an otherwise impressive performance by starter Jeremy Hellickson (five hits and
a walk over seven innings). And in case you didn't notice, that was former
Tampa Bay catcher John Jaso, traded for reliever Josh Lueke in the offseason,
behind home plate calling a game that earned him big post-game kudos from
Seattle's ace.

Jaso also happens to be batting .286 (and .313 in his last 10 games) with seven
homers this season. Lueke is pitching in Triple-A Durham. Ouch.

The question now is where does Hernandez' gem — the first perfect game ever for
the Mariners — leave the Rays as they open the a four-game series against a
formidable Los Angeles Angels team Thursday night in Anaheim?

The answer may not be all that gloomy, in spite of the familiar hollow feeling
team engulfing the team as jetted out of town.

It's all about how quickly they can erase it from their memory banks and treat
the humbling outcome in Seattle like just another loss.

Two seasons ago, they did just that. Following the Mother's Day perfect
game tossed by Braden on May 9, the Rays also headed straight to Anaheim. They
lost the first game against the Angels 5-4, but bounced back and won the next
two to take the series. And, in spite of getting no-hit by Jackson the next
month at Tropicana Field, the Rays shook it off well enough to eventually win
the AL East.

This is where manager Joe Maddon is at his best, when it comes to maintaining
an even keel in the face of adversity. And that's the note he sounded following
the game to reporters in Seattle, reminding players that the team is still 4-2
so far on the road trip and still in the thick of the wild card hunt at 63-54,
a holding a half-game lead over Detroit for the second wild card spot.

"Listen, all it is is a loss,” he said. "For me, if you look it as
you should, it's a great moment in Mariner history and the pitcher himself,
Hernandez. Otherwise, it's a loss. The Yankees got two-hit by him a couple of
days ago. So two hits vs. zero hits, a perfect game, I don't know. It's just a
loss. Also, I think I've learned that it normally doesn't carry over. . . .
It's just a game.”

That said, the Rays could have minimized the sting a bit more had they not reverted
to poor offensive form Tuesday night, stranding base runners in scoring
position throughout a game that should have ended in a 5-1 win rather than a
3-2 loss. That leaves them with back-to-back offensive eyesores when it looked
like the bats had finally begun to shake off the cobwebs.

The Angels pose another set of problems. Though they've lost six of their last
10 games entering Wednesday night, slipping from atop the wild card standings,
they're still in contention with a record of 61-56, only two games back.

And the pitchers they'll be throwing against Tampa Bay over the next four days
aren't exactly push-overs. Dan Haren (8-9, 4.68), Jered Weaver (15-2, 2.22), C.J.
Wilson (9-9, 3.32) and Zack Greinke (1-1, 5.54) boast more than 500 strikeouts
apiece since 2010. And Greinke, though still working into form since joining
the team from Milwaukee last month, has a Cy Young Award to his name from 2009.

The Rays, as they have done all season, will need to ride their own stellar
pitching — best in baseball since the All-Star break in starting ERA (2.25),
bullpen ERA (1.50), strikeouts (284) and lowest opponent's average (.200).

The series kicks off Thursday night at 10:05 ET with David Price (15-4, 2.50)
facing Haren, followed Friday night by James Shields (10-7. 4.02) and Weaver,
Alex Cobb (7-8, 4.08) and Wilson on Saturday 30 and Matt Moore (9-7. 3.60) and
Greinke on Sunday afternoon.

Moore pitched well enough Tuesday night to have earned his 10th win. Rodney saw
his 22-game save streak end, blowing only his second save opportunity of the
season. But with 37 in 39 attempts, he still has three more than any other AL
closer and is eight shy of the Rays' record, set by Rafael Soriano in 2010.

The question now is whether Tampa Bay's offense can regenerate that spark. The
Rays have still won 10 of their last 14 games, and their challenge now is to
treat the most recent loss one like any other — or they could quickly find
themselves facing trouble waters indeed.