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R.I.P. 2009 Rays

A week ago, the Rays were still the defending American League champions, and while their playoff odds weren’t good, they had a chance. They stood at 71-59, five games behind Boston in the wild card race, but with a chance to show they could hang with the best the AL had to offer. They had eight games scheduled in the last seven days, with three against the Red Sox, three against the Tigers, and then a double-header against New York. A strong week would put them in position to chase down the wild card leaders this coming weekend when they travel to Fenway Park.

Instead, that series is now meaningless, because the Rays fell apart in epic fashion. Seven losses later and we can officially shut the door on Tampa Bay’s chances of repeating. The collapse was a complete team effort, with every part of the club destructing en masse.

The offense struck out in 29% of their plate appearances, which led to a .222 average and a .286 wOBA. The pitching staff ran up 40 walks in 70 innings, and didn’t even offset the damage with strikeouts, ringing up only 50 batters on their way to a terrible 5.45 FIP.

No one was worse than Andy Sonnanstine, whose miserable season somehow got worse. In two starts, he managed to give up 13 runs over 6 2/3 innings. J.P. allowed seven of the 13 batters he faced to reach base while pitching exclusively in high leverage situations. Grant Balfour walked four of the 10 batters he faced. Six members of their pitching staff posted a FIP higher than 6.00 in the last week. Given the disasters on the mound, its no surprise that the team allowed 6.4 runs per game.

Even improved pitching wouldn’t have helped that much, however, as the offense was nearly as bad. They managed just 29 runs thanks to the “contributions” of players like Carl Crawford (2 hits in 30 plate appearances), Akinori Iwamura (.201 wOBA), Ben Zobrist (one extra base hit), and Pat Burrell (4 for 25 with one extra base hit). The team’s best hitter over the last week was Carlos Pena, but even that ended badly when he had his hand broken while being hit by a pitch and is now done for the season.

With the collapse, the Rays have to wonder what could have been. There is no doubt that this is a talented team that they put together, with both tremendous ability and depth at most positions. However, it is not a team without flaws, and Tampa Bay will have to spend the winter addressing those flaws if they’re going to topple Boston and New York again.

2009 was a missed opportunity. If Tampa Bay wants to remain in the mix with the big money teams, they can’t afford more missed opportunities. The Rays need to reload their roster this winter, and if it takes a willingness to part with some of their young talent in order to do so, than so be it. Building for the future is great, but they can’t let too many chances to bring a World Series title slip through their grasp.

Perhaps watching the 2009 season go up in smoke in one week will instill the needed sense of urgency.