The Season Ends
On July 15, after the first half concluded, I wrote:
And so what we’ve learned in the first half is this is a quality team, a playoff-worthy team, and a team that’s overcome more obstacles than they expected on their way to setting up an important second half. The Rays haven’t missed consecutive playoffs since becoming the Rays, and while that appears trivial—after all, merely five years ago making the playoffs once was a huge deal—it’s become a threat: Make the playoffs or be forgotten.
You hope this group can make the playoffs—and push beyond the play-in game, or the first round—because it would be too bad to forget about the kind of character and resiliency this team has shown when faced with struggle.
Some three months later, the season is over. This group did make the playoffs, and did push beyond the play-in game—two of them, in fact—while showing that same character and resiliency. Unfortunately, the ride has to end at some point for 29 teams, and on Tuesday night the Rays’ ride ended. There’s no needy for a lengthy recap; the rotation, the club’s backbone since 2008, failed in each game. Joe Maddon maneuvered his bullpen in the finale as well as he could, and almost stole one, but it wasn’t meant to be.
So comes the disappointment. The expectation with the Rays is no longer to reach the playoffs, but to go deep, otherwise all is for naught. When this site started, the Rays had one playoff berth to their name; now they have four, including another division crown. Expectations aren’t the only things to change. The Rays no longer have James Shields, Carl Crawford, or B.J. Upton. Soon David Price might join the ranks of the departed, with his absence offset by a new set of names. Change is inevitable for every team, but it always looms overhead when the Rays’ season ends: Which mainstay has played his final home game under the dome?
That’s why it was unsurprising to hear John Smoltz remark about Price’s future as he warmed in the bullpen during the ninth inning. Price was the last man standing, the only available pitcher who failed to appear. He warmed despite a two-run deficit against arguably the best reliever left in the postseason, and with an uncertain assignment ahead of him even if the Rays did rally. If Price has thrown his last pitch for the Rays, then it was an unsettling, yet perhaps fitting conclusion.
Price’s time with the Rays has never been as clean and perfect as Evan Longoria’s. Whereas Price faced constant criticism for his perceived failings in big games, Longoria’s career was tinged with a golden hue. It was Longoria who homered in 2008 to put the Rays on the postseason board; it was Longoria who homered in the ALCS when scoring felt impossible; it was Longoria who started that triple play in 2011 when the Rays needed it; it was Longoria who started the rally in Game 162, and Longoria who finished the night; and it was Longoria, once more, who put the Rays on track in Game Four. Longoria is not the franchise player; Longoria is the franchise.
Price had his moments, too. He closed out the ALCS as a rookie and assisted in the club’s lone World Series win. He became the first Rays pitcher to start an All-Star Game and to win a Cy Young award. There were plenty of highs, no doubt. More highs than lows from a wide-view. But there always seemed to be something. This past week saw him rise to the occasion in the play-in game, only to struggle in Game Two. Afterward, Price generated a media firestorm when he went after a pair of television analysts. Perhaps he has no tolerance for those who make off-the-record conversations on the record for their own profit, or perhaps he simply lost his cool after a disappointing start. The years fly by but progress can be inconsistent.
In a way the image of Price warming in the bullpen despite hopeless odds embodies the season. This club was equal parts talented and troubled. Had someone said before the season the four core members of the rotation—Price, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, and Jeremy Hellickson—would all miss time due to injury or ineffectiveness, then nobody would have liked the Rays’ chances of reaching the postseason. They did it anyway. Nobody would have liked the Rays chances of winning three elimination games in four cities. They did it anyway. Nobody would have liked the Rays chances of coming from down 2-0 to winning a best-of-five series. They didn’t do that, but we’ll remember this squad anyway.
In the coming days, the attention will turn to the offseason: who to target, who to avoid, who to let go, and who to bring back; all in pursuit of improving the playoff odds, winning that elusive title, and validating the past five years. The deck is stacked against the Rays, and the outlook will worsen if the ace shakes free, but that’s never mattered before. To paraphrase one pugilist: They’ve been fighters since ’08 when they started turning this organization around so it’s time to go. In six months they’ll return and start the fight again.