With letdown after big win, Rays still seek big moment
Tampa Bay falls into tie with Texas atop Wild Card day after 12th-inning walk-off
ST. PETERSBURG -- The thing about Joe Maddon is he doesn't run a ballclub like most managers and certainly doesn't speak baseball like most of them.
So when his Tampa Bay Rays began their tumble after leading the American League East for a few hours in August, he started a search. He wasn't looking for key hits, or solid pitching or airtight defense. All of those ingredients would have helped, but …
Joe Maddon kept saying what the inconsistent Rays needed was an "organic moment."
He said it once, twice, many times.
So many, in fact, I wondered if I should check out a biology textbook instead of my latest Bill James epistle.
When the Rays stunned the Rangers, 4-3, in 12 innings Wednesday night in a game that had more twists and turns than a mountain trail, it was right there on display: the "organic moment."
The victory was so important in the Rays' quest for a Wild Card berth somebody should have summoned a chemist to bottle the organic moment.
Definition of the moment? The gritty victory moved the Rays a game up on Texas in the Wild Card battle.
"I want to believe this game has to give us some kind of impetus moving forward," Maddon gushed afterward.
As moments go, Tampa Bay's was short-lived.
They should have bottled it, because all the momentum they might have gained Wednesday was gone Thursday, when the Rangers and Yu Darvish, even on an off night, clobbered the Rays, 8-2. The game wasn't as close as the score.
Instead of playing like a team propelled by one of its finest hours, the Rays played like they had a huge hangover.
Inconsistency has plagued Tampa Bay much of the season, even though the Rays have 83 wins and are now tied with Texas for the two AL Wild Cards. Unless they figure out a way to avoid these costly letdowns, they won't be playing baseball in October.
"There's no taking naps in these games; this stuff is for real," said Maddon after Thursday's jarring loss. "We are playing quality opponents. If I'm disappointed in anything, it's after last night's win, to come out and not play as well as we're capable of. We just didn't play well tonight."
The euphoric high from the night before was wearing off Thursday afternoon, but Maddon was still hoping that "organic moment" blossomed from one of Tampa Bay's most important come-from-behind victories.
"I want to believe there's going to be some kind of a positive push from that," Maddon said.
It just didn't happen.
By winning, the Rangers pulled even with the Rays for the AL's two Wild Card spots, and more importantly, won the season series between the two teams. That means if they are tied as Wild Card winners, the game will be played in Arlington.
Lefty Matt Moore had won seven consecutive decisions dating to June 20, but struggled from the first inning and left after four, trailing, 6-2. The Rangers ran the bases with reckless abandon -- they stole five, three by Craig Gentry -- and used third-inning homers by Mitch Moreland, Elvis Andrus and Alex Rios to send the Rays reeling.
Moore had never before given up three home runs in a game, let alone one inning.
"There's someone responsible for the damage, and I'm that person," said Moore. "Going into today, I had a chance to keep us atop the leaderboard as far as the Wild Card goes. It didn't happen."
It's obvious how offensively inept the Rays can be. Much has been written and said about their inability to get hits with runners in scoring position, but this is their Achilles', their glaring weakness.
"A lot revolves around the offense," he said. "I know we gave up some runs tonight, but if we could just get that offensive breakthrough. For the most part, there hasn't been that bang-bang-bang, the big hit. It's just not happening for us. This is nothing new. We've been fighting through for some time now."
For Darvish, now 13-9, it was more a matter of survival than solid pitching. He allowed only five hits, but walked six and hit a batter. The Rays scored their second run in the first inning, when Darvish walked Desmond Jennings with the bases loaded.
"As you can see, I didn't have any of my pitches -- fastball or breaking balls -- but somehow I was able to manage through five innings and keep the game close," Darvish said through a translator.
So the Rays continue to make playing in the one-game Wild Card playoff their goal.
If the Rays do prevail and land a Wild Card berth, their journey will have been the most demanding, more difficult than the likes of Texas and Cleveland.
Especially the Indians. They defeated Houston, 2-1, in 11 innings on Thursday night and are just a half-game behind the Rays and Rangers.
The Rays face the Orioles in the final four games of 2013 at Tropicana Field beginning Friday night, then play three games at Yankee Stadium before ending the season with a weekend series at Toronto.
The Rangers have a tough series in Kansas City this weekend, but their final seven games are at home against the Astros and Angels.
The Indians' final nine games are against the Astros, White Sox and Twins -- a collective 176-279.
Ask Maddon if he likes the sudden-death format between the two Wild Cards, and without hesitation, he says, "Right now, I'm a big fan.
"But the part of it I'm not a fan of is one-and-done. I said from the beginning, I thought two-out-of-three would be the best way to decide that. I know the length of the season is a concern. I get all that, but there are different ways to potentially avert that. I do think a sudden victory is kind of tough at the end.
"It's Super Bowl kind of stuff, which is cool for football. Our game is predicated on depth and 162 games -- playing every night. This is legitimately a one-game playoff."
Regardless, Maddon and the Rays will gladly accept the format at this point.
It might be just one game, but could be an "organic moment."
Hal Bodley is a senior correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.