Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 8/15/12
So much for all those waves the Tampa Bay Rays have been making in the AL Wild Card race lately. Wednesday afternoon in Seattle, it was more like a massive belly-flop. And in this case, the big splash at Safeco Field was made by brilliant Mariners' righthander Felix Hernandez, whose perfect game in a 1-0 victory suddenly leaves the Rays floundering again. And just when it looked like it was safe to get back in the water. Only two days ago, they were riding a seven-game winning streak, in sole possession of the Wild Card lead and starting to talk about making a run at the first-place Yankees in the AL East. Their bats had finally awakened with the arrival of slugger Evan Longoria back from half the season on the disabled list, they'd started a crucial 10-game road trip with a series sweep of Minnesota and an opening win in Seattle Monday night. But then came their ninth-inning disintegration Tuesday. After leading the entire contest, the Rays kicked away a game they should have won falling 3-2 in the bottom of the ninth when the Mariners cashed in on a Carlos Pena throwing error and two hits off normally invincible closer Fernando Rodney. Instead of being buoyed by the possibility of a third straight series sweep, they were now in a rubber-match against one of baseball's best pitchers demoralized and drained from the give-away the night before. Judging by how masterful Hernandez looked from the start, the Rays never stood a chance against him under any circumstance and certainly not with two of their hottest hitters these days, Desmond Jennings and Jeff Keppinger, getting a rest day until pinch-hit duty in the ninth. The 2010 AL Cy Young Award winner had Tampa Bay batters swinging at air all day long, victimizing the club with its third perfect game in the past four seasons. The previous two came courtesy of lefthanders: Mark Buehrle of the White Sox in 2009, Oakland's Dallas Braden in 2010, a season that former Rays' righty Edwin Jackson also pinned an eight-walk no-hitter on them as well. For the record, the Rays have now suffered more perfect games than any franchise in major league history three of the all-time 23 (an uncomfortable 13 percent) and a dubious claim to fame that underscores their historic futility in the hitting department. Hernandez, who has hurled three complete-game shutouts since June 28, overshadowed an otherwise impressive performance by starter Jeremy Hellickson (five hits and a walk over seven innings). And in case you didn't notice, that was former Tampa Bay catcher John Jaso, traded for reliever Josh Lueke in the off-season, behind home plate calling a game that earned him big post-game kudos from Seattle's ace. Jaso also happens to be batting .286 (and .313 in his last 10 games) with seven homers this season. Lueke is pitching in Triple-A Durham. Ouch. The question now is where does Hernandez' gem the first perfect game ever for the Mariners leave the Rays as they open the a four-game series against a formidable Los Angeles Angels team Thursday night in Anaheim? The answer may not be all the gloomy, in spite of the familiar hollow feeling team engulfing the team as jetted out of town. It's all about how quickly they can erase it from their memory banks and treat the humbling outcome in Seattle like just another loss. Two seasons ago, they did just that. Following the Mother's Day perfect game tossed by Braden on May 9, 2010, they also headed straight to Anaheim. They lost the first came against the Angels on May 10 5-4, but bounced back and won the next two to take the series. And, in spite of getting no-hit by Jackson the next month at Tropicana Field, the Rays shook it off well enough to eventually win the AL East. This is where manager Joe Maddon is at his best, when it comes to maintaining an even keel in the face of adversity. And that's the note he sounded following the game to reporters in Seattle, reminding players that the team is still 4-2 so far on the road trip and still in the thick of the Wild Card hunt at 63-54, a half-game behind Baltimore for the No. 1 seed. "Listen, all it is is a loss, he said. "For me, if you look it as you should, it's a great moment in Mariner history and the pitcher himself, Hernandez. Otherwise, it's a loss. The Yankees got two-hit by him a couple of days ago. So two hits vs. zero hits, a perfect game, I don't know. It's just a loss. Also, I think I've learned that it normally doesn't carry over. It's just a game. That said, the Rays could have minimized the sting a bit more had they not reverted to poor offensive form Tuesday night, stranding base runners in scoring position throughout a game that should have ended in a 5-1 win rather than a 3-2 loss. That leaves them with back-to-back offensive eye-sores when it looked like the bats had finally begun to shake off the cob webs. The Angels pose another set of problems. Though they've lost six of their last 10 games, slipping from atop the Wild Card standings, they're still in contention with a record of 61-56, only two games back. And they pitchers they'll be throwing against Tampa Bay over the next four days aren't exactly push-overs. Dan Haren (8-9, 4.68), Jered Weaver (15-2, 2.22), C,J, Wilson (9-9, 3.32) and Zack Greinke (1-1, 5.54) all boast more than 500 strikeouts apiece since 2010. And Greinke, though still working into form since joining the team from Milwaukee last month, has a Cy Young Award to his name from 2009. The Rays, as they have done all season, will need to ride their own stellar pitching best in baseball since the All-Star break in starting ERA (2.25), bullpen ERA (1.50), strikeouts (284) and lowest opponent's average (.200). The series kicks off Thursday night at 10:05 ET with David Price (15-4, 2.50) facing Haren, followed Friday by James Shields (10-7. 4.02) and Weaver, Alex Cobb (7-8, 4.08) and Wilson Saturday at 9:30 and Matt Moore (9-7. 3.60) and Greinke Sunday at 3:35. Moore pitched well enough Tuesday night to have earned his 10th win. Rodney saw his 22-game save streak end, blowing only his second save opportunity of the season. But with 37 in 39 attempts, he still has three more than any other AL closer and is eight shy of the Rays' record, set by Rafael Soriano in 2010. The question now is whether Tampa Bay's offense can re-generate its sparks of late. The Rays have still won 10 of their last 14 games, and their challenge now is to treat the most recent one like any other or they could quickly find themselves facing trouble waters indeed.
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