Rays can't repeat magic of last season

Rays can't repeat magic of last year

BALTIMORE -- The magic that carried the Tampa Bay Rays to the World Series a year ago is kaput. The Rays will be sitting home this October trying to convince themselves 2008 wasn't an aberration.

"An aberration?" manager Joe Maddon asks, biting a toothpick. "The best way I can answer that is, last season we learned how to win while we were ahead. We got ahead and stayed ahead. There's less mental energy when you play that way. To come from behind, there is more of a mental and physical push."

What Maddon was trying to say is that it's so difficult to repeat. Players often forget what it took to get where they were the year before. And when they realize they're falling behind, they bury themselves trying to catch up.

What really happened this year is the Rays didn't pitch as well, hit as well or field as well as they did during their Cinderella 2008 season. They kept reaching for that magic and it wasn't there. Gold turned to lead.

They blew big leads, and those patented comebacks didn't happen this time around. They were 29-18 in one-run games last season. This year, they're 17-23.

The Rays had never tasted anything as sweet as 2008. They played with reckless abandon, a kind of giddy enthusiasm. It was an amazing season for a team that had been the doormat of their division for eons. It was one of Major League Baseball's great feel-good stories of last year.

I don't think the Rays really knew what was happening to them until the Phillies finally ousted Tampa Bay from the World Series in five games. Had they stopped to realize what they were accomplishing along the way they may have tripped over their success.

They won the American League East and stunned Boston in the AL Championship Series. The mighty New York Yankees didn't even make the playoffs.

There have been flashes of 2008 this summer, but Tampa Bay was never really a serious threat to the Yankees and Red Sox after a terrible start.

Even after winning just nine of 23 in April, the Rays climbed to 13 games above .500 on Aug. 26.

Then came the giant fall. There was an 11-game losing streak earlier this month, and before they played the Orioles on Thursday night, they'd lost 13 of their past 14 games.

"We definitely didn't expect it to be this way," says Carl Crawford, who's batting over .300 with 57 stolen bases. "It's happened and we just have to deal with it. I didn't think it would end up like this."

Maddon, 55, relaxing in his office three hours before Thursday's game, rattles off how many times late home runs have beaten the Rays, like Wednesday night, when Matt Wieters blasted a two-run shot in the ninth inning off Russ Springer for a 4-2 Baltimore victory.

Their demise was obviously sealed the last two weeks, but even without the losing streak, I believe playing in the AL East this year made going back to the World Series virtually impossible.

The Yankees, who appear to have a lock on the division title, spent $423 million during the offseason for CC Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett to complement what was already one of the most powerful teams in the AL. The Red Sox, already strong, reeled in Casey Kotchman and Victor Martinez at the Trade Deadline, and later added Billy Wagner.

"Yes, the Yankees are noticeably better this year. And the Red Sox are, too," says Maddon.

The manager, about to begin his fourth season with the Rays, sat in his Tropicana Field office in early February, looked out at the empty clubhouse and oozed confidence -- he thought the Rays would be much improved in 2009. They'd obtained free agent Pat Burrell to be their right-handed designated hitter and made other tweaks. Burrell, however, has hit just 14 homers, driven in only 62 runs and is hitting below .230.

"I think coming over to this league as the DH is a difficult adjustment," says Maddon. "Being the DH is something that takes time getting used to. It's been a big transition for him."

Maddon says losing Carlos Pena, some say the heart and soul of the team, to a season-ending injury was devastating.

"We're missing him a lot," says Maddon of the first baseman who had hit 39 homers and driven in 100 runs. "Even though you look at our offensive numbers and they seem to be better overall, the offense hasn't been as good as I thought it would be. A lot of that stuff [good numbers] came in clumps. We haven't really spread it out evenly.

"I'd say the offense has been sporadic. Pitching-wise, the starters began slowly, but then they really picked it up. The bullpen has really been holding its own until lately. The way we've been losing games has been agonizing."

After a long dissertation, Maddon pulled out a couple of three-ring notebooks, flipped through several pages and then pushed the books aside.

"What basically has happened is this: The way we won last year, we're losing this year. Late in games, when we were able to get the hit or make the pitch, this year, we haven't been able to do that.

"This is the total reversal of last year. It also personifies the difference between winning and losing."

Maddon, always the motivator even in defeat, says he's hopeful the young players have learned lessons and will take them home during the winter.

"Everybody has now realized you cannot take it for granted because you went to the World Series the year before [that] you'll be back again the following year," said Maddon.

Hal Bodley is a senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.