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INGTON -- The Tampa Bay Rays are a team that no sane American League franchise would want to play in the postseason. The trick for the Rays, of course, will be getting from here to there.
By the numbers the Rays have the best pitching staff in the AL. They are also trending in the correct direction. Since the All-Star break, the Rays have the Majors' lowest ERA. Their bullpen ERA over the 42 games after the break is a microscopic 1.26.
By now none of this is an aberration. The Rays pitch well enough to stop even elite offenses. They have enough rotation quality and quantity to be tons of trouble in a postseason series. Their closer, Fernando Rodney, is having a season that seems to be at the outer edge of closer possibilities -- an 0.77 ERA with 39 saves in 41 save opportunities, with an opponents' batting average of .163 in save situations.
And the Rays are 14-7 since third baseman Evan Longoria, their premier offense player, returned from the disabled list. That 14-7 does include an 0-4 stretch since Saturday, but still, the overall direction is not south.
The problem for the Rays is in the other half of the game. The one big hit at the critical moment, the absolutely clutch performance by a hitter, has been lacking. And this shortcoming has shown up in a truly painful stretch of one-run losses.
The Rays, because of their pitching, ought to be significantly better in one-run games. And for a while this season, they were, winning 12 of their first 16 such contests. But they have gone 6-19 in one-run games since May 28, and they have lost four 1-0 games in the last 23 days. Seven of their last eight losses have come by one run, including the last two nights against the Rangers; 6-5 on Monday night and 1-0 on Tuesday night.
Generally speaking, teams that consistently lose one-run games have bullpen issues and lose games late. That is not the case with the Rays, whose basic problem is not finding that one big hit when it is needed most.
Arguably, Tuesday night's game was lost early. Yu Darvish pitched seven shutout innings for Texas, but Tampa Bay had two golden opportunities against him. They had runners on second and third with none out in the second and could not score, and they had the bases loaded with one out in the fourth -- and could not score.
James Shields did everything humanly possible against the Majors' highest scoring offense, giving up just one run -- on an Ian Kinsler homer -- over seven innings. It was a stellar performance, one that deserved victory as a result.
On the experience of pitching this well and yet losing, 1-0, Shields said, "It's not very fun. These are the games we've got to win."
Manager Joe Maddon sees the one-run-loss situation as temporary. He figures it will change, and he believes that his team's goal of winning the AL East is completely reasonable. The Rays are now third in the division, five games behind the leading Yankees. In the AL Wild Card race, the Rays are 1 1/2 games behind the A's and the Orioles, baseball's two most pleasant surprises this season.
"We've been involved in a lot of [one-run losses], and we've come out on the wrong end," Maddon said. "A lot of it has just been inability to get that hit in extra-inning games, the later innings of games. I like the way we're playing, but as we go forward, to get to the promised land, we have to get over that hump. We did so well with that earlier in the year. Sometimes it's just baseball luck, too. There's some of that involved, and we've got to keep knocking on the door until it comes back to us.
"Our bullpen has been great. We've had a lot of games that have been extended because the bullpen has been so good. We just have to get the run in somehow and get it rolling back in our direction. For the most part, we've played well in those games. For the most part, we've pitched great. But [in] the extra-inning games, we haven't been able to score that last run.
"Pitching-wise, we've been there. We've been there at the end of games. Since the All-Star break, it's been incredible how well we've pitched, no matter where we've been. The games we've lost, you look at the games in Seattle -- 3-2 and 1-0. We've pitched well enough to win a lot of games. And we've been hitting better overall, we just haven't hit to the level we're capable of."
With their pitching, the Rays remain exactly the kind of opponent nobody would want to play in a postseason series. But to become that postseason opponent, the Rays are going to have to find more clutch hits on more regular-season nights.