ST. PETERSBURG — The Tampa Bay Rays, kings of the improbable and the impossible for the last nine days, finally got burned by the inevitable twists of good fortune.
It can’t last forever.
Their defiant run of staving off elimination finally ended late Tuesday night, when they were bounced out of the American League Divisional Series by the Boston Red Sox, 3-1, at Tropicana Field.
And so continued a run of frustration against the Red Sox, the American League East champs who beat the Rays 12 out of 19 times in the regular season and then took 3 of 4 in the playoffs.
“They’re really good,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “They’re the reason why we’re sitting here not winning right now. They beat us all season.”
The Rays were playing their fifth elimination game in nine days, using an improvisational pitching-by-committee combination cooked up by Maddon trying to force a Game 5 Thursday night.
The strategy was going splendidly until the top of the seventh inning. With the Rays up, 1-0, the Red Sox pushed two runs through off the fifth and sixth Rays’ pitchers of the night. Jake McGee left with two on and two outs, when Joel Peralta came in to face Shane Victorino and threw a curveball that bounced away from catcher Jose Lobaton, scoring Xander Bogaerts, who had walked. Jacoby Ellsbury then scored on a bouncer to short by Shane Victorino.
“If there was a tipping point was the walk to Bogaerts,” Maddon said. “That’s pretty much how the whole thing began to roll.
“I really felt we could do 1-0. I really felt that was within our abilities.”
But the Rays deserve a tip of the hat from the crowd of 32.807 anyway.
This was their thriller within 24 hours, the night after Lobaton’s walk-off homer in the ninth inning gave the Rays a 5-4 victory. They overcame the largest deficit in their playoff history after they trailed, 3-0, in the fifth inning.
They won at Toronto. They won at Texas. They won at Cleveland. Now they simply needed to win once more at home, in Tropicana Field. They got one, but came up short
“It’s like the YMPA back in the day,” Maddon said before the game. “You get in that losers bracket, our softball team. You’ve just got to go out there with that focus every day.
“The big thing is, and I think it’s part of our ability to do this, and I want to believe this, is that we don’t treat any day differently all year….Spring training, September, whatever it may be, I’m really big on that. I really believe that’s important.”
The Rays squeezed 92 victories out of that formula, advancing to the American League playoffs four of the last six seasons despite a constant revolving-door of prominent players they couldn’t afford to hang onto because of their small-market economics. Imagine what the Rays staff would look like today if James Shields and Matt Garza were still on the roster?
Maddon and his team rarely complain about that kind of stuff. They just finagle some trades to grab a few prospects and move on.
“I’m really proud of our group,” he said after the game. “I don’t want to be cliché-ridden but there’s nothing to hang our heads about.”
Just look at the tale of the tape:
The Red Sox have the history and the money, with a payroll of $150.7 million.
The Rays bear the shame of playing in a domed stadium that kills the mood for baseball, and play under the constraints of a $57.9 million payroll.
“The tradition has to begin somewhere,” Maddon said. “Hopefully we’re building ours right now. You look at our fan base, we’re trying to build that. We’re trying to bring the younger group into our fold. And again, we don’t have the benefit of 50 years from now looking back.
“All these games matter. When you start building a tradition, all this stuff, allure counts.”
The process continued Tuesday, even in a losing effort. Win or lose, the Rays rarely disappoint.