By MIKE HENRY
The Rays' elimination from the American League post-season chase has been swift, but it hasn't been easy to stomach -- for management, fans or (we hope) the players.
Of course, when your bullpen loses 10 games in a 30-game stretch, no amount of hand-wringing will make a difference. The standings say the Rays' magic number for elimination is 16 games, but their season effectively ended last week when they lost five of six against the Red Sox and Tigers.
That first loss Friday against the Tigers was a pip. Detroit reliever Fernando Rodney, showing why he probably can't be trusted to close in a playoff series against the Yankees or Angels, nearly blew a 4-1 lead before getting the final out.
Rodney then heaved the game ball high above home plate and into the press box, where it rattled the cages of a couple of reporters already diligently making up their game stories. The hilarious (but almost injurious) spectacle drew a fine and suspension.
On Sunday, Brandon Inge took aim at the fans in left field with his ninth-inning, game-winning grand slam off Russ Springer, one of several Rays relievers being used fruitlessly by manager Joe Maddon.
The state of the Rays' bullpen was a joke before Nick Swisher ended the Yankees' 3-2 victory Tuesday with a homer off Dan Wheeler. Still, everyone has known for weeks Tampa Bay lacked a bona fide closer, best efforts from J.P. Howell to the contrary.
But the tattered bullpen isn't all that has gone wrong for the Rays, even before first baseman Carlos Pena had his season ended when a C.C. Sabathia pitch broke two fingers.
Last season, the Rays advanced to the postseason on the strength of a 29-18 record in one-run games. They're 17-22 this year. Center fielder B.J. Upton is on the verge of becoming more disappointment than tantalizing youngster, with a .237 average and almost three times as many strikeouts as walks.
Pat Burrell brought his World Series ring in the offseason, but he's been no help. He looks old, slow and vulnerable at the plate. And strangely, Matt Garza and James Shields -- two pitchers almost every team in the majors would love to have -- have usually pitched just well enough to lose. Somehow, they are a combined 16-19 despite a composite earned run average under 4.00.
And, while it might be hearsay to nitpick third baseman Evan Longoria, remember when he seemed a shoo-in to drive in 140 runs?
The most uncomfortable thing about the Rays collapse is the notion they cannot compete financially against teams such as the Yankees and Angels (I don't care what anyone says, the Red Sox look old to me). Baseball officials think we don't notice, just like crooked politicians.
Apologists for the modern version of the grand old game want us to forget the Yankees and Red Sox have won six of the past 13 World Series (a total that could be eight, if not for upsets by the Diamondbacks and Marlins).
That's why in these parts, Rays fans have already moved on to football with little of the angst of established baseball havens.
It's why the NFL and college football have already pushed baseball off the front page of the sports section, and why a Yankees victory is accepted in many quarters outside the Big Apple with a shrug of the shoulders.
I mean, even if the Dodgers beat the Yankees, their best player is a cheater. Some game.