Commentary

Farewell Tampa Bay?

ALDS Game 3 loss could spell end of days as Rays for Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena

Originally Published: October 9, 2010
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Tampa Bay Rays fans took a break from watching some lousy baseball Thursday to pay tribute to Carl Crawford, a four-time All-Star who has helped lead the franchise to prominence over the past few seasons. The Tropicana Field crowd chanted Crawford's name in the late innings of a 6-0 loss to the Texas Rangers, in acknowledgement of the likelihood that his days in Florida are nearing an end.

If Crawford feels wistful over the prospect of leaving Tampa for Anaheim, Boston, New York or some other city in the market for a dynamic left fielder, he's keeping it well hidden. The Rays trail Texas 2-0 in the best-of-five American League Division Series, and Crawford is more concerned with getting a few hits than hitting the financial mother lode.

We have to stay in the present. But I would be lying to you if I said I didn't think about the fact that this may be my last rodeo with this ballclub.

-- Rays first baseman Carlos Pena

"You just really focus on the next game,'' Crawford said Friday. "You want to try to win one game and keep the series going, because [the other] stuff will get taken care of at some point.''

Rays first baseman Carlos Pena, in contrast, is a bundle of introspection. Pena kicked around with four organizations before busting loose for 46 home runs with Tampa in 2007, so he feels a debt of gratitude to the organization that helped revive his career. Like Crawford, he's on the cusp of free agency. And unless the Rays find a way to win three straight games against Texas, he knows he'll be shaking hands and clearing out his locker soon.

"My heart is with this ballclub,'' Pena said. "This is extremely personal to me. So yes, it does cross my mind: Is this going to be the last game I play with the Rays? I don't want it to be. I want to be the last team standing on the field, victorious at the end of the year. That is my vision -- my dream.

"At the same time, I understand that it's game by game. We have to stay in the present. But I would be lying to you if I said I didn't think about the fact that this may be my last rodeo with this ballclub.''

More than most teams, the Rays have a vested interest in trying to make time stand still. Tampa Bay outlasted the Yankees and Red Sox to finish first in the rugged AL East this season, and ranked second to the Phillies among the 30 big league clubs with 96 victories. But the Rays' Opening Day payroll of $72 million ranked 19th in the majors, and they finished 23rd in attendance with just north of 1.8 million fans. Barely a day goes by that the Tampa Bay players or front-office decision-makers don't hear something about their "window of opportunity'' closing.

Soon enough, Crawford will give way to Desmond Jennings as the team's resident speedster-catalyst, and manager Joe Maddon will find a way to make room for Triple-A wunderkind Jeremy Hellickson in the rotation. And the Rays will deal with the reality of homegrown stars chasing the money to bigger, more affluent markets.

"We know there are some great players on this team who may not be here next year,'' outfielder Ben Zobrist said. "We hope we don't have to lose all these guys. But you know what? If we do, the Rays organization is still going to be a winning organization. They've done it the right way here, and they're going to keep doing it the right way. This organization is committed to developing its own players and winning from the inside out.''

[+] EnlargeCarl Crawford
Denny Medley/US PresswireCarl Crawford and Carlos Pena have shared some good times in Tampa Bay, including two AL East titles and a trip to the World Series.

Short term, the math does not bode well for the Rays. In the history of division series play, 38 teams have taken a 2-0 lead in the best-of-five series. Of those 38 clubs, 25 have swept the series, and nine more have emerged victorious in four or five games.

If the Rays are going to beat the odds, they have to play more like the resourceful club that won the AL East. During the regular season, the Rays led the majors with 172 stolen bases, and tormented opponents with walks, aggressive baserunning and well-timed extra-base hits. They ranked fifth in the game with a .790 OPS with runners in scoring position.

So what happened to that club? In the first two games at the Trop, the Rays were outscored 11-1 by Texas and hit .125 (8-for-64) as a team. They're dying to put pressure on the Rangers with their running game, but they can't steal bases from the batter's box or on their way back to the dugout.

"I wish I could stand here with an explanation for why we're not doing it,'' third baseman Evan Longoria said after Game 2. "We're doing the same things and preparing the same way. Sometimes the results come and sometimes they don't. And right now they're not.''

During Friday's workout in Arlington, the Rays certainly didn't act like a team on the verge of elimination. Players stood at their lockers and recalled the big September series in the Bronx, when Tampa Bay dropped two straight to the Yankees only to outscore New York 17-5 in the next two games. It happened again in the final week, when the Rays lost two straight to Kansas City but won the final two regular-season games to capture the division title.

For what it's worth, Pena said the Rays were their typically loose, comedic, "silly'' selves on the trip to Dallas-Fort Worth. They made a point of tuning out the media reaction to their two stinkers in St. Petersburg, under the assumption that nothing good could come from hearing analysts rip them for their sorry performance.

"As soon as we walked onto the bus, 'SportsCenter' was on TV, and the first thing we did was shut it off,'' Pena said. "Every newspaper that I've been able to find has been trashed. We're oblivious to all of that, and if there's an attempt to make us pay attention to all that, we discard it. We destroy it.''

If tuning out the negative static helps, why not? Pena and Crawford might not be long for Tampa Bay, but they share the same goal as their fellow Rays. Right now it's all about prolonging the season and postponing the seemingly inevitable.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer