So, we’ve had an interesting situation the past week of a couple of first place teams coming into Safeco Field and getting upended by the younger Mariners. Seattle has now taken 3-of-4 from the Minnesota Twins and the Tampa Bay Rays with the Jeremy Reeds, Bryan LaHairs, Wladimir Balentiens and Jeff Clements of this world filling out the lineup cards. Yes, Jose Vidro was still here when the “streak” began, but that was done a day later and Balentien was up — just in time to notch the hit that likely turned defeat into victory for the Mariners last night. Yes, the Ibanez homer was big. But without that Balentien double, the M’s likely don’t tie the game and it’s a different scenario heading into the ninth.
By now, as you’d imagine, the Rays and Twins must be feeling a little frustrated. After all, they no doubt saw the M’s on the schedule and figured this would be prime time to fatten up on their lead in the standings.
The Twins might not have known any better, but the Rays certainly should. August can be a dangerous time to play against teams so far out of it they need a telescope to see the next closest competitor. By the second half, non-contending teams usually stack their roster with “kids” to get a look at the future. Or, they leave all the angst of a first-half disaster behind, using the All-Star break to psychologically begin a “new’ season, one in which their fans make a break from the first three months as well and tend to also take a fresher outlook while not riding the club as hard.
Frankly, when you bury yourself so far back so quickly, it does remove a certain pressure to perform. Throw in the Dog Days of August, when contending teams are trying to pace themselves, or store some energy for that final September sprint, and you can have the recipe for on-field upsets.
Covering the AL East every year since the Rays’ inception in 1998, until my arrival in Seattle late in the 2006 season, my former colleagues and I seemed to notice how some terrible Tampa Bay teams always seemed to have these crazy, illogical second-half runs that came out of nowhere. I mean, these were teams that perennially lost between 90 and 100 games. It was highly unusual to think the Rays capable of sustaining anything for two, three and even five-week stretches. But they usually did. Many of those teams had “kids” to open the season. So, that wasn’t as big a factor as it may be for these Mariners. Still, the whole “pressure is off” and opponents trying to “fatten up” theory did hold.
Anyhow, it was always just a perception we had about the Rays. We called it the “Tampa Bay bounce” theory. I decided to do some research this morning and see just how close to reality that theory was.
It turns out that, just about every year, the Rays did go on some kind of second-half run that defied logic or reason. And here’s the thing: it usually involved some playoff-bound team (the Yankees often) coming in and getting its tail whupped. But almost never beyond early September. And that’s the thing. By September, teams headed to the playoffs are usually sharpening their claws, ready to take on any opponent in a fight to the death for a much-needed win. Not so much in August. As I mentioned, the playoff sprint has yet to begin. Teams now are merely trying to stay close enough to be part of a pennant race. It’s hot out. Fatigue is setting in. That second-wind has yet to strike. For some pretenders, it never will.
But the Rays, given their history of surprising teams in August, should know better. They should know how dangerous this time of year is for wannabe contenders just like them. Let’s take a look at what some really bad Rays teams have done before. This isn’t meant to be a scientific study or anything. Just fun.
2007 — The Devil Rays, as they were still called, would lose 95 games. But they were true terrors between Aug. 24 and Sept. 10, winning 13 of 17 and sparking all kinds of commentary about how the future looked great. For the first time in a decade, that prediction was actually accurate.
2006 — Nothing happened this year. The Devil Rays stank. They stank in the first half and in the second. But still, with all those first round picks and more to come, the future looked great.
2005 — Nothing like a 97-loss team to set a second-half trap for win-hungry wolves. Tampa Bay won 14 of 19 between July 14 and Aug. 3 — in other words, right after the All-Star Break. And then, so as just to prove the future looked great, they won 12 of 16 from Aug. 12 to Aug. 28. In other words, they notched 26 of their 65 wins that season (40 percent) over roughly a six-week span in the second-half. Gotta love it. No wonder we had our theories.
2004 — Tampa Bay didn’t even bother waiting for the second-half of this season to turn on the jets. After playing themselves out of contention the first month or two, they went absolutely nuts from May 30 to July 3, going an astounding 24-8. That’s .750 ball for five weeks. By a team that had been on-pace to lose 100. As a result, the Rays “only” lost 91 that year and — for the only time in their history — avoided a last-place finish. The future looked great.
2003 — This 99-loss juggernaut was poised and ready to pick off some suckers in the second-half. Tampa Bay captured 14 of 21 games from July 29 to Aug. 19 of that season and served notice that the future…well, it was going to be great. Seriously.
2002 — Not so much here. Bad team. Great future. But lousy present.
2001 — The Rays lost 100 games. But they still tripped some teams up in August, winning 8 of 12 between Aug. 10 and 22. They shed a bunch of veteran contracts and played the kids. Talk about a great future ahead.
2000 — Tampa Bay began a misguided attempt to import a bunch of home run sluggers to join Jose Canseco. They lost 93 games that year, but still captured 13 of 19 from July 22 to Aug. 10. Bring in a couple more veteran bats, and what a great future! Especially once that Josh Hamilton kid worked his way through the minors.
1999 — Signed Jose Canseco to build off a rookie franchise season. Didn’t work so well and the D-Rays would drop 93 games. But from Aug. 4 to 22, they won 12 of 17. A few more bats and hey, the future could be great.
So, there you have it. Almosty every year of their miserable existence, outside of 1998, 2002 and 2006, the Rays have managed to surprise people despite their terrible standing. What does this prove? That every dog has its day, perhaps. Or that every Ray has its way at one time or another.
The hidden subtext is that, no matter how good the kids may look in the second-half, it’s best to keep in mind that these games matter little. Ultimately, while there are always a few surprises, the top prospects are still the ones who the future is built off, while the surprises are usually just that — surprises who fade with time. But you never know. And after a first half as bad as this year’s was for the M’s, fans no doubt deserve a few surprises, fleeting as it may be in the end. So, go ahead and enjoy the run. Just don’t forget to keep the long-term picture in sight. This is a bad team that needs many fixes. No matter what happens this month, plenty of fixes need to come.