Martin Fennelly Columns
Rays' magic of '08 briefly appears vs. Twins - then poof!
For a moment, a brief, flickering moment, it was 2008. It was those Tampa Bay Rays. They trailed 3-2 in the top of the ninth inning inside the Metrodome on Tuesday night. Minnesota Twins lights-out closer Joe Nathan threw his first pitch, a fastball. It rocketed off the bat of Rays pinch-hitter Ben Zobrist, the mighty Zorilla, who has been feeling 2008 since this season began.Home run. Game tied. Yeah, these are the Rays we knew from 2008. These were those Rays. They lost it in the bottom of the inning. The feel-good fled as Rays reliever J.P. Howell gave up a couple of hits and a walk. Even so, the Rays seemed about to get out of it when Justin Morneau hit a perfect 4-6-3 double-play ball. Only Rays second baseman Akinori Iwamura couldn't quite handle it. He fumbled the ball and threw to second for the force, but Jason Bartlett's relay to first just missed getting Morneau. Twins win, 4-3. That has been this season for the Rays. The defending American League champions and reigning baseball magicians can't wait to get out of April. If they lose to Minnesota tonight (Scott Kazmir is throwing), it will mark six consecutive series lost after taking two of three from the Red Sox at Fenway Park to start the season. These Rays are 8-13. These Rays aren't those Rays - not yet, not by a long shot. Speaking of the Red Sox, here they come, beginning Thursday night at Tropicana Field, their first trip here since late last October, since Game 7 of the AL Championship Series. As I recall, the Rays won that game. Yes, the Rays were only 10-11 at this point last season. But this wasn't supposed to be that kind of April. This team was supposed to be better. And it isn't. The starting pitching hasn't been there. The bullpen hasn't been there. The offense definitely hasn't been there - 15 runs one day, none the next, eight runs, two runs, seven runs, one run. Carlos Pena is swinging a big bat, as is Bartlett, but the rest of this lineup is a mystery. B.J. Upton looks like he should be following up on his knockout 2008 postseason. He smiles a lot at the plate and spits a lot and is hitting .151 with one RBI, or as many as Dioner Navarro has. Upton, Carl Crawford and newcomer Pat Burrell have combined for one home run. One. Then there are all those missing timely hits from role players. Remember them from last season? Zobrist has done his part, with four homers, but mostly there has been no magic, Remember Gabe Gross and Willy Aybar? They're both hitting below .200. So is new Ray Gabe Kapler, who has brought next to nothing to the table. There has been no magic, no 2008. The starting pitching has been up and down. Matt Garza has been getting hit. Andy Sonnanstine has been getting pummeled. And the real magical touchstone of 2008, the amazing out-of-nowhere bullpen, has generally gone back to nowhere. Howell hasn't been like he was last season, and though Grant Balfour has shown some good signs lately, he's still not the Balfour of 2008. Neither is Dan Wheeler. Troy Percival continues to let guys on base. How long will he last? It seems like this bullpen is waiting desperately on the arrival of Jason Isringhausen, who continues to try to return from elbow surgery. They're waiting on Jason Isringhausen. Do we need to say anything else? It's early, but April can't get over soon enough - 2009 already feels like a grind. Don't look now, but the Rays are ensconced in last place in the AL East, already 6½ behind Toronto and 5½ behind you know who - Boston. And here come the Red Sox, who Tuesday night at Cleveland had an 11-game winning streak snapped. Funny, but just last season, just last April, the Red Sox came to the Trop and were swept by the Rays, who sent an early message that hinted at all the magic that was to come. Garza will start against Boston on Thursday. The last time he faced the Sox at the Trop, he was bulldogging past them in Game 7 on his way to being named ALCS MVP. He was on his way to the World Series, too. They all were. What happened to those guys, anyway? We see them for a moment, a moment like Tuesday night, and then they're gone. Will they ever be back for good?