Rays couldn't repeat 2008, especially in the bullpen

Updated: September 9, 2009

AP Photo/Bill Kostroun

The Rays blew an eighth-inning lead against the Yankees when Jorge Posada drilled a three-run shot.

Pitching, defense and timely hitting were the keys that got the Tampa Bay Rays to the 2008 World Series. All three have faltered this year.

Let's start with the Rays' bullpen. It just hasn't been able to produce like it did last year in carrying the team to the postseason. Tampa Bay won a lot of one-run games last year (29-18). This year, the Rays are losing them (17-22). On Wednesday, they entered the eighth inning against the Yankees with a 2-1 lead, but a three-run homer by Jorge Posada put an end to that. An easy remedy for their losses would be to pick up a real closer. After losing first baseman Carlos Pena for the rest of the year with a hand injury, and falling into an eight-game skid; their chance of catching the Boston Red Sox has diminished completely. Boston is sitting 9½ games ahead of Tampa Bay as the wild-card leader.

BASEBALL TONIGHT LINEUP CHANGE

"Baseball Tonight" shifts its spot in the batting order this Sunday, moving up an hour for a 6 p.m. ET start on ESPN.

The bullpen has been a problem all year. The Rays haven't been getting the starting pitching they got last year. Now Scott Kazmir is gone, traded off to the Angels. Matt Garza is having an average year. Andy Sonnanstine has been shifted to the bullpen. Tampa Bay has newcomers David Price and Wade Davis. So the pitching staff is totally different than it was last year. Last season, the Rays got a lot of breaks. They caught a not-so-good Yankees team and a good Red Sox team. This season, they're in a division with a good Yankees team and a good Red Sox team. That combination has proved to be too much.

J.P. Howell is leading in saves with 16 in 24 chances. Blowing eight saves is not good. The Rays need to establish a closer. More importantly, they need to establish a bullpen to get it to their closer so that they can be competitive.

This season, the Rays have had two guys who have stood out all year: Jason Bartlett and Evan Longoria. In addition, Carl Crawford is batting .304 and putting up a good effort. As a group, this team is hitting a lot better, so the offense is definitely one of the bright spots. Can you imagine what kind of year the Rays would have had if their offense weren't on point?

Tampa Bay's defense, which was one of the best in the American League last year, has fallen apart completely. Rays manager Joe Maddon took a chance by bringing in seven position players and two pitchers he thought could get it done. Instead, they have struggled on routine plays.

Even though the Rays faltered this year, I think this is a learning experience for these young guys who were so successful last year. Keep in mind that the Rays were the surprise team last year, so a lot of teams were prepared for them and respected them more as a winning team this time around. I have no doubt that this young group will get it together in the offseason and the players will come back a little hungrier than they were this year.

Again, this season came down to pitching. The Rays' one-two punch of Garza and James Shields was off. The two needed to step up this year for the Rays to remain competitive. Last year, Garza was 7-9 with a 3.85 ERA and Shields was 9-10 with a 4.02 ERA. This year, they are under .500 combined. That's not a good sign. The one pitcher over .500 is Kazmir -- and Tampa Bay traded him.

In the end, the Rays believe in their farm system with Price and Davis. That's why they traded Kazmir. Now that these young guys have gained experience this year, they will be ready for next year. This team will rebound, but it ultimately will have to match the production and intensity the Yankees and Red Sox have to compete in the AL East next year.

The window has closed on the Rays for this year, but their future is very bright. As long as they remain hungry, they will be successful next season.

Past Baseball Tonight Clubhouses: Sept. 8 | Sept. 7 | Sept. 6 | Sept. 3 | Sept. 2

TOUCH 'EM ALL

Touch 'Em AllWho went deep? Keep track of all the home runs hit each day on "Baseball Tonight" and on the Baseball Tonight Clubhouse page.

For more, check out the Home Run Tracker page.

Home Run Tracker
NAME HR OPPSITUATION
Albert Pujols, STL47NarvesonTop 7: 1-1, 2 Outs. None on.
Albert Pujols, STL46SuppanTop 5: 2-0, 1 Out. 1 on.
Adrian Gonzalez, SD37ZitoTop 3: 1-2, 1 Out. 1 on.
Cody Ross, FLA21MischTop 1: 1-1, 2 Outs. 2 on.
Marlon Byrd, TEX17CarmonaTop 1: 2-1, 1 Out. 2 on.
Jason Bartlett, TB14ChamberlainTop 1: 2-1, 0 Outs. None on.
The complete list of Wednesday's homers

ON DECK: THURSDAY'S BEST MATCHUPS

Marlins at Mets, 7:10 p.m. ET

The Marlins are trying to hold on to their slim hopes of slipping into the postseason. Sean West is 3-1 in his past five starts, although he was roughed up in a three-inning outing against the Nationals in his most recent start. Bobby Parnell, on the other hand, is 1-4 in his past six appearances.

Braves at Astros, 7:10 p.m. ET

Much like the Marlins, the Braves are trying to remain relevant in the NL wild-card race. Derek Lowe has beaten the Astros once this season, tossing 6 2/3 innings in a 7-2 win on May 1. A day later, on May 2, Roy Oswalt pitched only one inning because of a long rain delay in his only start of the year against the Braves.

Mariners at Angels, 10:05 p.m. ET

John Lackey has strung together a pair of strong starts, tossing a complete game against the Royals for a 2-1 win in his most recent start and eight innings in a 9-1 win against the A's in the outing before that.

For the rest of Thursday's schedule, click here.

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BBTN ON THE AIR: THURSDAY

TIME WHO'S ON?
12:30 a.m. ET
ESPN
Host: Steve Berthiaume
Analysts: Steve Phillips, Eric Young

BBTN MINUTE: WHAT HAPPENED TO THE RAYS?

SIMON SAYS

Simon Says ESPN researcher Mark Simon digs deep, looking for the night's best baseball numbers.

Tonight, he takes a look at Jorge Posada, whose eighth-inning three-run homer against the Rays lifted the Yankees to a 4-2 win on Wednesday:

Yanks' record this season when Jorge Posada …
Hits a homer 14-6
Has an RBI 30-9
Has a hit 47-18

The Yankees are 13-20 when Posada plays and does not have a hit.

WEB GEMS

WEDNESDAY'S BEST AND WORST

BEST
Albert PujolsAlbert Pujols continued his destruction of National League pitching. Pujols, who leads the NL in homers, blasted two more in the Cardinals' 5-1 win over the Brewers. Pujols went 3-for-5, with a two-run shot in the fifth and a solo homer in the seventh.
WORST
Fausto CarmonaFausto Carmona did not get out of the first inning in the Indians' 10-0 loss to the Rangers. Carmona recorded only two outs, but gave up six hits and five runs. Later, Rafael Perez entered and got one out, and gave up six hits and five runs.

NUMBERS TO KNOW

Scott FeldmanIf the Rangers are going to ride into the playoffs, a large part of the reason will be the recent pitching of Scott Feldman.

Feldman, whose ERA has hovered around 4.00 all season, has made four straight starts away from home. He doesn't seem to mind. Feldman shut out the Indians over seven innings of Thursday's 10-0 win, and his numbers of late have looked more like those of a Cy Young pitcher than a middle-of-the-road starter. Lately, even batters who are ahead in the count have struggled against Feldman; they're getting hits less than half as often as before.

Feldman (Past nine starts)
Past 4 Previous 5
ERA 0.34 6.00
BA against vs. fastballs .179 .351
BA against vs. righties .200 .396
BA against when behind .214 .458

-- ESPN Stats & Information

FANTASY: PREVIEW OF THURSDAY'S GAMES

Fantasy AJ Mass examines the seven games on Thursday's slate.

Mass ranks the pitchers scheduled to take the mound and supplies loads of other information that could help shape your roster for Thursday. Daily Notes

HUNT FOR OCTOBER

Here's the latest in the wild-card races:

AL WILD CARD
TEAM W-L GB POFF
Red Sox 81-58 -- 79.5%
Rangers 79-60 2.0 38.1%
NL WILD CARD
TEAM W-L GB POFF
Rockies 80-60 -- 84.9%
Giants 76-64 4.0 11.1%

For more on all the playoff races, see the Hunt for October