Commentary

Rays fail to take advantage of opportunities in ALCS opener

Originally Published: October 10, 2008
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The fans were here with their cowbells, their Mohawks and their official 2008 Tampa Bay Rays merchandise with the price tags still attached. And then the happy new residents of Greater Unincorporated Rays Municipality (unlike Red Sox fans, they have yet to qualify for full Nationhood status) watched their team lose in excruciating fashion in the first ALCS game in its history.

The Rays committed what manager Joe Maddon termed the "mortal sin'' of wasting a good pitching performance from starter James Shields. They didn't get a hit off Boston starter Daisuke Matsuzaka until the seventh inning. Even so, they left the bases loaded in the first inning. They somehow failed to score with Carl Crawford on third base and nobody out in the seventh inning. They went scoreless again in the eighth inning after the first two batters singled.

And when the last opportunity had been squandered and the 2-0 loss was finally over, the Rays left the stadium with the knowledge that they would have to beat Josh Beckett Saturday in Game 2 in order to avoid falling into a potentially fatal hole before the series heads to Boston.

[+] EnlargeEvan Longoria
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesEvan Longoria was hitless in four at-bats, including two strikeouts, in the Rays' 2-0 loss in the opener of the ALCS.
Not to put any pressure on them or anything.

"The thing is we don't spend any time analyzing the situation that way because that would do us no good,'' first baseman Carlos Pena said calmly. "All it would do is create baggage for us tomorrow. So our mentality right now is just to keep it simple. We lost today. It's over. We come back tomorrow as if nothing ever happened. And like nothing else existed but tomorrow's game.''

That's the proper attitude because the Rays weren't that far from winning Friday night. Boston scored the game's first run in the fifth inning thanks in large part to Mark Kotsay's check-swing double ("It was a good pitch down and away and I didn't want him to swing at it,'' Shields said) and scored an insurance run in the eighth when Kevin Youkilis' sinking liner to left just glanced off Crawford's glove. "I thought I had it,'' Crawford said. "I looked up and I was surprised I didn't have it.''

But if the Rays are to reverse their fortunes in Game 2, they will have to do all the little things they failed to do in Game 1.

For one thing, when you get Crawford, one of the game's fastest players, on third base with nobody out and you're trailing 1-0, it's a good idea if you score him.

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"It's kind of frustrating. We knew we could get it done and we didn't,'' said catcher Dioner Navarro, whose fly out to left in the seventh was so shallow not even Crawford could score on it. "I was trying to put the ball in the air and I did, but I didn't hit it far enough. I didn't do my job. I've got to do better.''

There was a lot of that going around.

Since homering in his first two postseason at-bats and going 3-for-3 in his first postseason game, probable rookie of the year Evan Longoria has one hit in 16 at-bats. He went hitless in four at-bats Friday with two strikeouts and a rally-killing double-play grounder in the eighth. He looked overwhelmed the entire night.

Both Longoria and Pena swung at 3-0 pitches late in the game and had nothing to show for it. Swinging at 3-0 can be a tricky thing. On the one hand, if you're really struggling against a good pitcher (as the Rays were against Dice-K), then it makes sense to take the pitch and hope for ball four. On the other hand, if you're really struggling against a good pitcher (as the Rays were against Dice-K), it also makes sense to take a good swing when you know the pitcher has to give you a decent pitch.

[+] EnlargeJames Shields
Elsa/Getty ImagesJames Shields was the hard-luck losing pitcher for the Rays; he allowed only two runs in 7 1/3 innings.
Of course, if you fly out, as both Pena and Longoria did, then everyone asks why you weren't more patient. But if you hit the ball off the wall, Longoria said, "we're having a completely different conversation.''

"I thought it was a pretty good gamble,'' Maddon said of giving Pena the green light. "Carlos said to me he thought it was ball four. I really couldn't tell from where I was standing, but I thought it was our best chance to get a three-run homer right there.''

That's the way the postseason is, as Rays fans learned Friday, if they didn't know already. Everything rides so much on each game and on each at-bat. Come through in a couple of situations and everyone will talk about how young and loose you are. Fail in those same situations and everyone will talk about your lack of postseason experience. The reality is you just need to play a little better.

"That's baseball,'' Rays designated hitter Cliff Floyd said. "If you don't capitalize against a team like that, they'll win.''

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com