By Ted Keith
June 08, 2009

The quote of the day posted on the Tampa Bay Rays lineup card on their clubhouse door at Yankee Stadium on Sunday may have been just the latest bit of homespun wisdom from an organization owned by a former Wall Street executive, run day-to-day by a 30-something wunderkind and managed by a maverick in horn-rimmed glasses. But it also may have spoken to exactly what is ailing the defending American League champions one year after electrifying the baseball world with a stunning run to the World Series. It read: I have seen that in any great undertaking it is not enough for a man to simply depend upon himself.

In the great undertaking that is a 162-game baseball season, it is never enough to rely on one man, or even two or three men, and expect to find success. It is a lesson the Rays learned well last season, when they surged from last place in 2007 to their first-ever postseason appearance despite not having a single player bat .300 or reach base 40 percent of the time, and not having a pitcher win more than 14 games.

It is a suddenly apt message for a team that is threatening to do something never seen in the history of baseball: have four different players lead their league in batting average (Jason Bartlett, .373), home runs (Carlos Pena, 17, tied with Mark Teixeira), RBIs (Evan Longoria, 55, tied with Jason Bay) and stolen bases (Carl Crawford, 34). Yet because the Rays have been forced to depend on that cadre of individual performances, and have not gotten the same balanced effort that carried them to the Fall Classic a year ago, they sit mired at 29-30, in fourth place in the AL East, six games behind the Yankees and five games out of a playoff spot. They no longer resemble the bungling, dysfunctional Rays of their early existence, but they are still a far cry from the powerhouse that flowered a year ago and was a popular pick to return to the postseason this year.

A little more than one third of the way through the first season they have ever entered in which they were considered a legitimate contender, the Rays are something they never were during 10 consecutive losing seasons at the start of their franchise's existence: a puzzling disappointment. The same question that was asked with such regularity during their march to the postseason a year ago must now be asked again, as they have tumbled back toward the middle of the pack: Are these the real Tampa Bay Rays?

The early returns offer a snapshot of the Rays' potential, as well as their predicament. They have beaten the Yankees and Red Sox, their chief competitors in the AL East, nine of the 16 times they've played, yet they are just 19-22 against teams at or below .500, a winning percentage that ranks last in American League.

Further, the chances of duplicating last year's 97 wins is fading rapidly. The Rays would have to play .654 baseball the rest of the way to match that mark, which may be a prerequisite to even have a shot at making the playoffs in the steel cage match that is the AL East.

Sunday's loss to the Yankees was notable for its vintage-Rays feel (four walks and an error helped turn a two-run lead with six outs to go into a loss in which they never even got the chance to record the last three outs) and for the fact that it denied Tampa Bay a chance to soar two games over .500, heights to which it has yet to ascend during this most puzzling season.

The offense has been as devastating as expected, ranking in the top four in the American League in every major offensive category, including first in runs. Thus, the causes of the Rays' struggles begin with inconsistent pitching (particularly from the bullpen), a defense that has gone backward, and, to be fair, a slew of injuries -- six players have gone on the disabled list in the past two weeks -- that has left the club, in the words of manager Joe Maddon, "playing with one hand behind our back, basically."

"This has been a little more difficult," Maddon said after his team gave one away on Sunday. "We're not getting nearly as consistent pitching and defense as we got last year, although the hitting has been consistent. We thought we would maintain the pitching and defense [from last year] and we have to get that back in order to contend."

Indeed, the team's ERA has jumped more than half a run (from 3.82 to 4.49) and its WHIP has gone from 1.286 to 1.408. Meanwhile, the defense that last year led the major leagues in defensive efficiency -- the success at which a team turns batted balls into outs -- this year ranks 14th. Similarly, its ranks in errors (from 22nd-most last year to eighth this season) and fielding percentage (10th in '07, 21st in '08) have both suffered sharp declines.

The Rays have not been helped by the injuries to their double-play combination of Bartlett (sprained ankle) and second baseman Akinori Iwamura, who is out for the season with a torn ACL. Longoria, the reigning AL Rookie of the Year, is still battling a sore hamstring that limited him to pinch-hitting duty on Sunday, and Scott Kazmir, once the ace of the staff, is still sidelined with a strained quad.

Perhaps the biggest turnaround from last season, though, has been in the bullpen. While last year's committee approach helped carry the Rays to the pennant after closer Troy Percival went down once and for all with an injury, this group has been an almost daily headache for Maddon as it seeks to solve not only the middle innings but the ninth as well. "We're working to get those three extra outs because of our irregular bullpen," said Maddon, who likes to have each of his relievers be able to get four outs if need be. Among bullpen regulars this season, only J.P. Howell (2.17) has an ERA under 5.00, and it was Howell who combined with Grant Balfour to blow the game on Sunday. The Rays' bullpen ERA has risen from 3.55 in 2008 to 3.93 this season, and they've already blown eight saves, half of what they had for all of last year.

"This is who we have and this is who we are," said Maddon. "I'm not crying about it."

Sunday's loss also dropped the Rays to 6-12 in one-run games, ranking next-to-last in the major leagues in a category in which they were second overall and first in the AL last year. Their Pythagorean record, which projects a team's wins and losses based on the number of runs it scores and allows, suggests that the Rays should have the second-best record in baseball, with five more wins than they do right now, yet instead they have the worst disparity between projected and actual performance in the American League.

If the Rays were feeling the frustration of being stuck in neutral, they weren't showing it on Sunday afternoon. Players shrugged off their slow start as nothing to be concerned about, and some could be heard whistling New York, New York in the shower afterward. As Maddon is fond of pointing out, tomorrow would come, and he had already taken steps to ensure that his team would be loose and ready to play. "We have something special planned for tomorrow. I can't tell you about it, though."

The same lineup card that had offered words of wisdom may have given it away though. It promised that Monday at 4:00 The Suggie Bear's Hair Will be Naired. Don't miss it.

It might be the first thing about this Rays season that has not been worth missing.

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