So much for all those waves the Tampa Bay Rays have beenmaking 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 brilliantMariners' right-hander Felix Hernandez, whose perfect game in a 1-0 victorysuddenly leaves the Rays floundering again.
And just when it looked like it was safe to get back in the water.
Only two days ago, Tampa Bay was riding a seven-game winning streak, in solepossession of the wild card lead and starting to talk about making a run at thefirst-place Yankees in the AL East.
Their bats had finally awakened with the arrival of slugger Evan Longoria backfrom half the season on the disabled list, they'd started a crucial 10-gameroad trip with a series sweep of Minnesota and a series-opening win in Seattle onMonday night.
But then came their ninth-inning disintegration Tuesday. After taking the leadin the top of the first and holding it to the bottom of the ninth, the Rayskicked away a game they should have won surrendering two runs in the bottomof the ninth when the Mariners cashed in on a Carlos Pena throwing error andtwo hits off normally invincible closer Fernando Rodney to lose 3-2.
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 giveaway the night before.
Judging by how masterful Hernandez looked from the start, the Rays never stooda chance against him under any circumstance and certainly not with two oftheir hottest hitters these days, Desmond Jennings and Jeff Keppinger, gettinga rest day until pinch-hitting duty in the ninth.
The 2010 AL Cy Young Award winner had Tampa Bay batters swinging at air all daylong, throwing the third perfect game against Tampa Bay in the past four seasons.The previous two came courtesy of left-handers: Mark Buehrle of the White Soxin 2009, Oakland's Dallas Braden in 2010, a season that former Rays' rightyEdwin Jackson also pinned an eight-walk no-hitter on them, as well.
For the record, the Rays have now suffered more perfect games than anyfranchise in major league history three of the all-time 23 (an uncomfortable13 percent) and a dubious claim to fame that underscores their historicfutility in the hitting department.
Hernandez, who has hurled four complete-game shutouts since June 28,overshadowedan otherwise impressive performance by starter Jeremy Hellickson (five hits anda walk over seven innings). And in case you didn't notice, that was formerTampa Bay catcher John Jaso, traded for reliever Josh Lueke in the offseason,behind home plate calling a game that earned him big post-game kudos fromSeattle's ace.
Jaso also happens to be batting .286 (and .313 in his last 10 games) with sevenhomers this season. Lueke is pitching in Triple-A Durham. Ouch.
The question now is where does Hernandez' gem the first perfect game ever forthe Mariners leave the Rays as they open the a four-game series against aformidable Los Angeles Angels team Thursday night in Anaheim?
The answer may not be all that gloomy, in spite of the familiar hollow feelingteam engulfing the team as jetted out of town.
It's all about how quickly they can erase it from their memory banks and treatthe humbling outcome in Seattle like just another loss.
Two seasons ago, they did just that. Following the Mother's Dayperfectgame tossed by Braden on May 9, the Rays also headed straight to Anaheim. Theylost the first game against the Angels 5-4, but bounced back and won the nexttwo to take the series. And, in spite of getting no-hit by Jackson the nextmonth at Tropicana Field, the Rays shook it off well enough to eventually winthe AL East.
This is where manager Joe Maddon is at his best, when it comes to maintainingan even keel in the face of adversity. And that's the note he sounded followingthe game to reporters in Seattle, reminding players that the team is still 4-2so far on the road trip and still in the thick of the wild card hunt at 63-54,a holding a half-game lead over Detroit for the second wild card spot.
"Listen, all it is is a loss, he said. "For me, if you look it asyou 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 ofdays ago. So two hits vs. zero hits, a perfect game, I don't know. It's just aloss. 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 revertedto poor offensive form Tuesday night, stranding base runners in scoringposition throughout a game that should have ended in a 5-1 win rather than a3-2 loss. That leaves them with back-to-back offensive eyesores when it lookedlike the bats had finally begun to shake off the cobwebs.
The Angels pose another set of problems. Though they've lost six of their last10 games entering Wednesday night, slipping from atop the wild card standings,they're still in contention with a record of 61-56, only two games back.
And the pitchers they'll be throwing against Tampa Bay over the next four daysaren'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) boast more than 500 strikeoutsapiece since 2010. And Greinke, though still working into form since joiningthe 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 stellarpitching 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 night by James Shields (10-7. 4.02) and Weaver,Alex Cobb (7-8, 4.08) and Wilson on Saturday 30 and Matt Moore (9-7. 3.60) andGreinke on Sunday afternoon.
Moore pitched well enough Tuesday night to have earned his 10th win. Rodney sawhis 22-game save streak end, blowing only his second save opportunity of theseason. But with 37 in 39 attempts, he still has three more than any other ALcloser and is eight shy of the Rays' record, set by Rafael Soriano in 2010.
The question now is whether Tampa Bay's offense can regenerate that spark. TheRays have still won 10 of their last 14 games, and their challenge now is totreat the most recent loss one like any other or they could quickly findthemselves facing trouble waters indeed.