Tampa Bay Rays
Rays' fall back to Earth was inevitable
Just nine days ago, the Tampa Bay Rays were 20 games over .500 and headed for a 118-win season, if only they could keep it up. If you thought they could, though, you were dreaming. No team has kept the pace they were on for an entire season. The major-league record for wins in the regular season is 116. I mention this for a couple of reasons. It illustrates just how well the Rays navigated the first seven weeks, and it also shows this current patch of rough road is not really surprising.One of the reasons "Moneyball" became popular to the point of cliché in baseball is that it showed that performance really is mathematically predictable. Little more than a week ago - on May 23 - the Rays were 32-12 after beating Houston 10-6. They've lost six of eight since then, including a supremely frustrating 3-2 setback Monday night at Toronto. What's wrong? Nothing that shouldn't have been expected. They almost certainly couldn't be as good as the team that ripped through baseball until that game at Houston, nor are they as feeble as the Rays we've seen the last week or so. Line drives that fell in for two-run doubles the first seven weeks of the season are being caught now. Balls like the one Carlos Pena hit to end the seventh inning Monday made it over the fence instead of falling just short of a two-run homer, like that one did. The same numbers that worked against them keeping the pace they were on line up in their favor from here on out. The Rays have 110 games remaining. If they play only .500 ball the rest of the way, they'll have 89 wins. That probably wouldn't be enough to get them in the playoffs, but I also think they'll play a lot better than .500 over the final four months of this season. After all, it's June 1 and despite this rough patch they still have the best record in baseball. That doesn't mean there aren't problems. Is it just me, or does it seem like they're flirting with being no-hit about once a week? It was happening again Monday until Sean Rodriguez barely beat out a grounder to short with two out in the sixth. They did perk up a little offensively against the White Sox over the weekend, but there is just no consistency at the plate. We saw that in the ninth inning Monday when they couldn't tie the game despite having Evan Longoria on third base with one out. We know who the problems have been - Pena, B.J. Upton, Jason Bartlett, Dioner Navarro - but we also know there isn't much anyone can do about that besides fidget. Except, perhaps, for Navarro, those guys are going to be part of this all season. Navarro's roster spot is most likely hanging by a silk thread right now. Kelly Shoppach has begun a rehab assignment and should be ready in a couple of weeks at the latest. The Rays have options to send Navarro to Durham if they want to, which at this point is a no-brainer. John Jaso has become basically the everyday catcher now and the confidence Manager Joe Maddon shows in him is obvious. Besides, with Shoppach signed through next season it will all but impossible for Navarro to make this club in 2011 - assuming everyone stays healthy. Upton is another one of those guys who drives fans crazy. He just looks like someone who should hit 28 home runs and drive in at least 95, not the guy currently hitting .220 with an abysmal .304 on-base percentage. You know what, though? That may be who he really is. He swings at bad pitches and lets too many good ones go by. He ranks 18th among big-leaguers in strikeouts with 51 (his brother, Justin, is second with 69, for what that's worth). A scout told me recently that Upton is too slow to get his hands into the hitting zone. It's not all the gyrations he goes through before the pitch is made; lots of hitters do that. Most of those guys though - say, like Boston's Kevin Youkilis - have their hands low and cocked well before the ball gets to the plate. I watched Upton closely for several at-bats after that and the scout was right. He was still bringing his hands into position by the time the ball was on him. Of course he was going to swing late then. Perhaps not coincidentally, Upton was given two days off - not at his request - by Maddon last week. Since returning, he has swung a little better. His hands seemed quicker, too, in Monday's game. Upton does so many other things well that I'd keep him on my team even if he never figures it out completely at the plate. I've not seen a better center fielder on any team, and you might be surprised to find he is ninth in the majors in stolen bases with 15. He is just one steal behind Carl Crawford. So as badly as some of the Rays have hit, it's logical to assume they'll do better. Pena, as we know, is a notorious streak hitter. Bartlett is way behind his normal pace. Just a couple of weeks ago we were wondering what was up with Ben Zobrist. Since then he has had four home runs and is looking more like the Zorilla we came to know. Just as the Rays weren't as good as the team that won 32 of its first 44 games, they aren't as bad as the team currently stumbling to find its way. These things even out. That's what's happening now.