Rays not in position they expected to be in entering September

August 31, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Out on the field, a harmless pop fly from Brandon Guyer landed in Yoenis Cespedes' glove near the warning track to close a month that will give way to a September unlike any other here in recent memory.

A small group of Boston Red Sox fans cheered its team's 3-0 victory Sunday behind the third-base line as the home crowd filed away. Right-hander Clay Buchholz, with his red-and-gray jersey untucked, received high-fives from pleased teammates near his dugout after a three-hit, six-strikeout complete game.

"I felt good with all my pitches," Buchholz said later.

In the Tampa Bay Rays clubhouse, bargaining with another loss in an underwhelming season was about to begin. Manager Joe Maddon sat in his soft chair behind his desk deep in Tropicana Field and said, "The last time we got on a good roll, that just showed up." Right-hander Alex Cobb spoke about finishing strong in September to build toward a "bigger and better next year."

There was no declaration of resignation, no white flag waved. But the urgency seemed ratcheted down from the talk heard in a hot July, when winning series became the mission and "Aug-tember" entered the Rays' vernacular to describe desperate and inspired play. This was exactly one month after left-hander David Price's trade to the Detroit Tigers became a demarcation, and it's hard to overlook the blockbuster deal as when Tampa Bay's momentum began to fade.

What's left? There are four weeks, 25 games and uncertain goals. The Rays (66-71) entered Sunday 8 1/2 games back in the race for the American League's second wild-card spot. They would need massive collapses by the Detroit Tigers, Seattle Mariners, Cleveland Indians, New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays to reach the playoffs for the fifth time in seven years.

Anything remains possible until the math says otherwise. But it's hard to see magic on the horizon. As another September is set to begin, a month when the Rays have uncorked their water-into-wine persona time after time under Maddon, it's difficult to see a repeat this year. This August-to-September transition feels different.

"It's about keep working the same at-bats but then coming up with the hit when we need it," Maddon said of remaining goals. "It's pretty simple. I mean, the refrain has been repeated almost on a monthly basis."

The start of this September feels uncommon.

Since 2008, when the Rays reached the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, there usually has been more than a glimmer of hope after Aug. 31. They owned at least 71 victories each year and either led the AL East or were no more than 7 1/2 games back in the race for an AL wild-card spot. They had become perennial contenders.

There are many reasons why a season that began with calls to "Eat Last" has become reduced to something far less ambitious. Blame injuries and a punchless offense. Blame inconsistent pitching early. Blame sloppy defensive play late, with the Rays committing an error in their eighth consecutive game Sunday, their longest streak since going a club-record 11 straight games with an error from Aug. 29-Sept. 11, 2004. Many things have gone wrong.

"That's a little tough to swallow," Rays right fielder Matt Joyce said of the latest loss Sunday. "But that's the way the game goes sometimes. It's tough."

This has been a tough year not because the Rays were viewed as a World Series-or-bust group -- though many considered them a Fall Classic possibility -- but because they have placed themselves out of the conversation (for now) come Sept. 1. On paper, they should be better than 66-71. In reality, the record shows exactly who they are.

This Rays summer can be told in three acts: The 24-42 start from Opening Day to June 10, one that included a 1-14 run from May 26-June 10; the 37-19 sprint from June 11-Aug. 15 to reach .500; and the 5-10 slide from Aug. 16 to Sunday. Form Tampa Bay's season as a line graph, and it would reveal how this team is more valley than peak.

How will the August chapter be remembered?

"I think from a pitching standpoint, we've got to be pretty proud of ourselves with the way we handled the difficulties of more of the pressure from the outside in the media and the fans looking (at) how we were going to respond when David was traded away," said Cobb, who allowed two runs (one earned), seven hits and struck out six in 6 1/3 innings on Sunday. "So I'm proud of the guys for how we handled that. Definitely stepped up everybody's game, understanding they're going to need to do more to fill those shoes. So good job there. There are games that we gave away in this past month."

What about a September outlook?

"Stop the bleeding as soon as possible," Cobb said. "We'll look to see how we do that in September. The biggest thing is you want to see the guys finish strong."

Of course, finishing strong is the right way to approach the regular season's final weeks. Expect most in the clubhouse to do the right thing.

Still, the next month looms as uncharted territory for most here.

Instead of fighting for first place in the AL East with the Baltimore Orioles, these Rays must finish 16-9 to close with a winning record for the seventh consecutive year. Instead of priming themselves to make good on another manageable chance to make the playoffs, these Rays must be content in a job well done each day, perhaps without a larger meaning present in the final weeks. This September could be strange.

"We've got to go Colorado Rockies on them right now," Maddon said, referencing the 2007 team that won 21 of 22 games to reach the World Series.

"We've got to channel our inner-Rockies right now."

An inward look is a fine idea with another September about to begin, though for far different reasons than normal.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.