Have Rays Lost Their Underdog Mojo?
I'm pretty sure I saw Rays mascot Raymond lose some intensity and focus after the Rays put up a 7 spot in the 3rd! He was clearly loafing in the Soda Pop race! Everyone in a Rays uniform last night was at fault for this record setting debacle and it's clearly a trend this season. Never before has a Rays team blown a 7 run lead at the Trop. Heck...never before has a DEVIL RAYS team blown a 7 run lead and think how God-awful some of those teams and bullpens were! Remember Esteban "Gone" Yan? He got lit up more than a University of Colorado Bong!
So what as changed? Same pitchers for the most part (but I still wonder why you let JP Howell and his 1.21 WHIP get away for 1 year 2.85 Million and give Roberto "Fausto" Hernandez $3.2 Mill?) but they have almost all regressed statistically and velocity wise. Apparently David Price and Jake McGee's fastballs both spent the off season vacationing at Sandals getting drunk, fat and losing their edge. Price's fastball is down 2 MPH and has he's not hitting 97-98 like he did on put-away pitches last year. McGee only throws fastballs and this season his velocity is down and his ERA is up...way up...from 1.95 to 10.64. Kyle Farnsworth has gone from high 90's fastball in his huge 2011 year to low 90's now and a 6.43 ERA. He is clearly not the same pitcher post injury and at this point not reliable. Fernando Rodney's velocity seems fine but his effectiveness is way down after being overused in the WBC. Nobody expected Rodney to reproduce last seasons record setting .60 ERA. Still a 5.06 ERA and the overall staff ERA of 4.39 is 12th in the AL and a huge reason the Rays have given up leads in 12 of their 17 losses.
In the "Monday Night Meltdown" there was so much blame to go around. Hellickson has now blown leads of 6-1 and 7-0. After getting a 7 run lead he went out in the 4th and had a 39 pitch inning! He began nibbling at the corners instead of challenging hitters. Jake McGee came in throwing all fastballs (he finally found 97-98 last night) that even .200 hitter Mark DeRosa can hit out. He needs to have to have the swagger to throw the slider/cutter he worked on in spring training. Escobar blew a routine double play that could have saved a run in the 8th. In the 9th, Molina throws a ball into CF allowing the tying run to get to 3rd with nobody out. The offense went dormant, the defense went south and Joe Maddon let Rodney pitch too long...and shouldn't have had him pitch at all to Arencibia (9HR, 18 RBI) with first base open and DeRosa waiting on deck!
Maddon believes this is all temporary and he may be right...he usually is. Maddon doesn't think the problem is "attitudinal" and I trust his evaluations perhaps more than any other manager I've covered...but I might disagree.
I think it's something more sinister. It's the thing that has sunken great teams since Rome's Legions were upset at Teutoburg Forest by the Germans. Complacency, arrogance and apathy. This is the first season where pundits actually picked the Rays to win the World Series. They have become the "hunted" and and have forgotten their "hunter" DNA. I asked Maddon preseason about this philisophical and motivational shift and he said it was something he acknowledged but wasn't concerned about. Fair enough...but how do you measure "killer instinct"? Focus and effort at key moments? By the number of lost leads? Seems like the best indicator to me and the Rays have been unusually horrible in this category. Last year the Rays lost leads in about 42% of their losses...this year it's 70%! When the Rays went up 7-0 in the third inning they managed just 3 singles the rest of the way. Did they lose that intensity? Were they apathetic? Complacent? Did they arrogantly think the pitchers would take care of business like they did last year? Was Escobar's blown double play and Molina's throw into center field a lack of focus at key moments?
To me it seems this team has lost that "underdog, never say die, us against the world" mentality that has been their core DNA for many years. Did that depart with Bull Dog and vocal team leader Big Game James Shields? Is there a lack of credible leadership in the clubhouse? There are whispers that Longo isn't revered like Shields was.
That "hunter" "underdog" mentality is a very fleeting and elusive vibe and it's hard to just manufacture. The 2 incidents against the Yankees in the spring of 2008 (Elliot Johnson runs over Cervelli, Gomes tackles Shelly Duncan) gave the Rays that "were mad as hell, were not gonna take it any more" attitude. But if there is one manager in the game that can do it...it's the progressive JoJo Ma. Be it penguins, or DJ's or magicians he will find a way. I would be shocked to see this team continue to struggle like this but the path to progress is to accurately identify the problems and fix them. That has been the critical strength of the 2 time Manager of the Year. I expect him to fix all these ills...including whatever is keeping Raymond from being his best self!