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NY Times: The magic deserts struggling Rays after a run to the World Series

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After conjuring some ninth-inning magic to defeat the Yankees on Saturday, the Rays are only one game over .500, and quite relieved that a 6-1 run got them there. They have fluttered in fourth place in the American League East every day for almost a month, and have not been higher than third since the first week of the season.

Even the manager who could do no wrong one season ago, Joe Maddon, last month had a lineup-card goof cost him his best player, Evan Longoria. A franchise that was consistently horrible for 11 seasons and then clearly blessed for one is searching for this year’s identity.

“It’s definitely different from any other year,” left fielder Carl Crawford said Friday. “It’s been back and forth. We feel we have a big stride to hit, and we haven’t hit it yet.” They were only two regular-season games against the Cleveland Indians. But they embody how different 2008 and 2009 have been for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Last August, when the Rays roared back for six runs in the bottom of the ninth inning to beat the Indians, 10-7— capped by Carlos Pena’s game-winning grand slam — they appeared touched by magic.

Last month, also against Cleveland, it was the Rays’ bullpen that blew a 10-4, ninth-inning lead to lose in a fashion inconceivable during their remarkable World Series run a year ago. Forget magic. Already enduring a ghastly string of injuries, the Rays appeared touched by a force far more sadistic.

After conjuring some ninth-inning magic to defeat the Yankees on Saturday, the Rays are only one game over .500, and quite relieved that a 6-1 run got them there. They have fluttered in fourth place in the American League East every day for almost a month, and have not been higher than third since the first week of the season.

Even the manager who could do no wrong one season ago, Joe Maddon, last month had a lineup-card goof cost him his best player, Evan Longoria. A franchise that was consistently horrible for 11 seasons and then clearly blessed for one is searching for this year’s identity.

“It’s definitely different from any other year,” left fielder Carl Crawford said Friday. “It’s been back and forth. We feel we have a big stride to hit, and we haven’t hit it yet.”

The Rays have had players go down to injury like ducks in a carnival booth. Second baseman Akinori Iwamura is out for the season with a torn knee ligament; closer Troy Percival’s sore shoulder could lead him to retire; the left-hander Scott Kazmir pulled a leg muscle because of poor mechanics; shortstop Jason Bartlett, enjoying a breakout season with a .377 average, is on the disabled list with a bad ankle; and joining him is the slugger Pat Burrell, who was not slugging.

Center fielder B. J. Upton, so electric a year ago, is only now hitting again after off-season shoulder surgery cost him spring training and a week of April. Even Longoria — whose .322 average, 13 homers and a league-leading 55 runs batted in have him leading all A.L. players in All-Star votes — joined the trainers-room fun Tuesday, missing two games with a tight hamstring.

“We’re starting to put ourselves back together,” Maddon said. Longoria took no solace in that, saying: “We haven’t played up to our potential. Injuries are no excuse for losing games.”

Each encouraging sign for the Rays has a worrisome alter ego. Crawford, Longoria and the first baseman Pena have helped the lineup remain second in the A.L. with 5.6 runs per game, but the team’s 6-11 record in one-run games indicates trouble getting runs that matter. The Rays entered Saturday five games behind the Red Sox and the Yankees, and three games behind Toronto, but must catch at least two of them to return to the postseason. Last October’s bullpen star, David Price, was recently called up and provided a welcome jolt, but he has yet to prove himself as a starter. He allowed three runs, one earned, and two hits in five and two-thirds innings Saturday.

“We’re back to .500 and have a lot of games left to catch up,” Upton said Friday.

A devout optimist, Maddon added that there was no sense of urgency with the season already one-third over. “I really have a hard time amping up urgency-type stuff,” he said. “I believe every day’s like that. You’ve got to worry about Toronto right now. Catch Toronto. Then once you catch Toronto, whoever’s next, catch them. I’d much rather do that on a day-by-day basis.”

That will require consistent starting pitching, a hallmark of last year’s team but elusive so far. In fact, the 2008 Ray now pitching the best is Edwin Jackson, who is 5-3 with a 2.30 earned run average but doing so for Detroit after an off-season trade.

James Shields (5-4, 3.40) and Matt Garza (4-4, 3.67) have been effective, but Kazmir and Sonnanstine have started 20 games with E.R.A.’s over 7.00. The rookie Jeff Niemann (5-4, 3.77) has helped ease the loss of Jackson. If Price can get his pitch counts down enough to last six or more innings and help out a bullpen undermined by injuries to Percival and the left-hander Brian Shouse, that stride Crawford envisioned could indeed be hit.

The question is whether the Rays will start it too far behind the Red Sox, the Yankees and possibly the Blue Jays to make up their deficit. They started Saturday at the .500 fork for the eighth time this season. So storybook one year ago, the Rays know that their story line awaits.

“We faced adversity last year, too,” Upton said. “We had some rough stretches, and some things didn’t go our way. But we’ve done it before, and I think we can do it again.”

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.

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