The Tampa Bay Rays effectively eliminated themselves from MLB playoff contention this past week thanks to an exhausted bullpen and a mismanaged squad.
The Rays faced a season-deciding homestand with their rivals the Boston Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers. The Red Sox held a four-game lead in the Wild Card standings, so the Rays had to win that series to realistically have a shot.
Joe Maddon, Ray’s manager, made the decision to start Andy Sonnanstine in game one against Jon Lester. While Lester has had a subpar history against the Rays, he has been an outstanding pitcher overall for three years.
On the contrary, Sonnanstine had good career marks against Boston. However, he has struggled and has spent two months of this season in the minors.
Nonetheless, Maddon chose him to replace the traded Scott Kazmir in the biggest game of the season.
The strategy blew up in the Rays’ faces.
Sonnanstine only lasted four innings, allowing five runs — three earned — as his defense and pinpoint command betrayed him.
The Rays lost 8-4.
Following the game, Maddon took the surprising step of defending his pitcher, saying he “threw the ball really well.” Really, Mr. Manager of the Year?
How, exactly, does a finesse pitcher issue four walks, just two strikeouts and two home runs and throw really well?
Maddon is stretching it in his defense of Sonnanstine.
We respect you and think you have done a good job with the young guys.
But just admit you made the wrong decision. It would be a first.
The Rays beat Josh Beckett the following night, thanks to a home run barrage of their own.
Even so, Maddon used seven pitchers in his effort to micromanage every matchup. Three of his relievers issued costly late-inning walks and were pulled out of the fire by a three-run Rays eighth inning.
There would be no saves made in the must-win series finale.
Boston beat the Rays 6-3 to take the series. Two relievers, again brought in for matchup purposes, allowed two late insurance runs that sealed their team’s fate.
The number crunching does not always work, and it failed Maddon miserably in this series.
The Rays then had the daunting task of hosting the Detroit Tigers, who led the Central division entering Tropicana Field.
The first game had the Rays and Tigers tied at one entering the final inning. J.P. Howell, normally the closer, promptly allowed Detroit to take a 3-1 lead on a hit and two walks. Again playing the matchup game, Maddon replaced him with another left-hander, Randy Choate.
Choate allowed a hit to score a fourth run — one that would decide the game, as a comeback attempt by Tampa Bay ended in a 4-3 defeat with two runners stranded in scoring position.
Game two saw the Rays leap out to a 4-1 lead after just one inning. James Shields allowed six runs, but the game was ultimately lost by the bullpen.
Three relievers combined to allow the decisive runs to score in an 8-6 loss.
The finale was the most gutwrenching blow. Up 3-1 in the ninth inning, Lance Cormier struck out the first Tigers’ hitter.
Maddon inexplicably removed him for hard-throwing Grant Balfour, who walked Miguel Cabrera. Howell was next, and he walked a pinch-hitter and found himself pulled.
Russ Springer then entered the game to deal with right-handed hitters.
After a hit loaded the bases, All-Star Brandon Inge stepped up with a golden opportunity to give Detroit the lead.
He fell to a 2-2 count, then got a hanging slider. He proceeded to hit it to Timbuktu.
By that, I mean it was about a 400-foot grand slam. The life was zapped from the Rays yet again.
When Maddon returned to make yet another pitching change, he was booed by the home crowd.
This may be the first time he has ever deserved such an indignity. But he brought it upon himself.
The Rays did not beat the Red Sox and Tigers, nor did they beat the Rays.
The Rays beat themselves.
And Joe Maddon may have beaten himself out of the playoffs.
Brenton Burkett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.