ANAHEIM, Calif. – The cologne was Sex Panther – "lucky" Sex Panther, Joe Maddon pointed out, as if there's another kind – and the car was a 1967 Plymouth Belvedere station wagon, which summoned his double-take on a Long Beach street corner and gotta-have-it offer to the man standing beside it.
The two – fragrance and beach cruiser – were unrelated except when they arrived in Maddon's orbit on the same afternoon, and that's when you know you're going good.
So he dabbed a little perfume on his neck, scheduled a test drive (of the car, not the Sex Panther) for the following morning and got on with his mission, that being the guiding and holding together of the Tampa Bay Rays, a common preseason choice to win the American League East and for the moment in dead last place.
The Rays won that night at Angel Stadium. Chris Archer, the 25-year-old right-hander and 2014 breakthrough candidate, pitched to the verge of the seventh inning, Evan Longoria had a big hit in the eighth inning, the bullpen didn't budge, and a long gray line of Rays snaked across the infield shaking hands, patting backs, satisfied. They play to win, of course. But, every day now, they also play to turn a season jagged with injury, mediocre pitching and vulnerable at-bats. Forty-six games in, which seems a reasonable time to begin drawing conclusions about a ballclub, the Rays have a losing record at home, a losing record in the division, and have endured five losing streaks of at least three games.
So even the good times haven't lasted. The next morning, Maddon showed up to take his Belvedere for a spin, took a long look at its primer gray exterior, felt the rough ride, considered the repairs necessary, thought about the couple grand – "Cash," the seller had specified – in his pocket, and passed. Later that night the Rays embarked on a fresh three-game losing streak. So, no car. Only fleeting good fortune in the cologne. Another day lost to the grind, a roster in need of help, the schedule relentless. It won't wait for the disabled list to clear, or starting pitchers to reach deeper into games, or Yunel Escobar and Desmond Jennings to hit with runners in scoring position.
"The starting pitching has to be good," Maddon said. "We can't really pull this off without good starting position, A. Then, B would be the bullpen. Really define the roles and get them all pitching to their capabilities. The next thing, we have to be better against left-handed starting pitching, which we're very capable of doing. And then continue to keep the defense tight. But it really revolves around the starters."
Count the Rays among those struck by the Tommy John contagion, and that's part of it. Matt Moore made two starts, walked off a mound in Kansas City, and that was that. Five days later, still in early April, Alex Cobb was lost to a strained oblique. Moore and Cobb had thrown nearly 300 innings and won 28 games between them in 2013, and were being counted on for better than that in 2014. For two pivotal months, David Price, Archer, Jake Odorizzi and Cesar Ramos combined for 35 starts and none had an ERA under 4.
Here's what doesn't work for the Rays (or anyone, for that matter): Mediocre pitching. Thin pitching. Hittable pitching. Unreliable pitching. Injured pitching.
Because they catch the ball, and they often could find just enough runs in just the right places to be threatening, but their coming of age as a franchise – starting in 2008 – has been based on pitching, and mostly starting pitching. As with any organization, four-plus ERAs out of the starters (and relievers) generally mean a season not even Sex Panther could deodorize.
The Rays have grown into a proud and capable organization. So 46 games of bother is, for the time being, just that. Cobb is scheduled to return Thursday against the Oakland A's. Archer has had his moments. Price can be great. Jeremy Hellickson could return from his elbow injury in July. But they do have until about then to decide whether it's time to trade Price and parachute out of a season that hasn't had many good days or continue chasing a division that hasn't gone anywhere yet.
That would be the good news. The AL East isn't the beast that is its reputation. There isn't a top-five rotation in the bunch. So there are games out there, wins out there, and the Rays have a knack for finding themselves amid the parity left by drug tests and industry-wide adopting of advanced metrics.
"We don't have some of the advantages we used to have," Maddon said, though it didn't seem to bother him.
They'll seek other advantages. Maybe that's Cobb's return. Maybe that's refreshed power strokes from Longoria and Wil Myers. Maybe that's a sorting out of the bullpen. Or a better Price.
Maybe it's all of that, and then Maddon will know for sure he's going good.
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