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Flip side of Tampa Bay's run is lack of experience

Flip side of Tampa Bay's run is lack of experience

The same team that didn't flinch shaking down Chicago or staring down Boston is suddenly showing its age against the Phillies.
More than half the players on Tampa Bay's roster and in its starting lineup weren't born the last time Philadelphia won a World Series. Nearly all of them were in high school the last time the Phillies played in one. That may bode well for the future, but if there's anything to the notion that a team has to pay its dues, the Rays are cooked.
A team built on pitching and defense hasn't shown much of either since this World Series left the land of snowbirds and headed north. Worse still, composure was at a premium in Sunday night's 10-2 loss, and that was before the Rays found themselves parked in a three-games-to-one ditch.
With runners at first and third and one out in the first inning of Game 4, Phils slugger Ryan Howard grounded back to the mound. Instead of playing percentages and throwing to second to start a double play, Rays starter Andy Sonnanstine saw Jimmy Rollins stuck on the basepath between third and home and took the bait. His flip to teammate Evan Longoria led to a close play at third _ replays appeared to show Longoria did tag the seat of Rollins' pants _ but the umpire called Rollins safe.
Another grounder from Shane Victorino eventually produced the only first-inning run, but the damage lingered much longer than that.
Plate umpire Tom Hallion warned the Tampa Bay dugout about chirping soon afterward. Then, normally solid second baseman Akinori Iwamura booted grounders at the start of both the third and fourth innings, leading to one and three runs, respectively. After making zero errors in their first seven postseason games, the Rays have five in the past four.
With Tampa Bay's lineup hitting .187 for the series _ run producers Carlos Pena and Longoria are in an 0-for-29 free-fall with 15 strikeouts _ there wasn't so much as a hint of a comeback. And mounting one now, with Philadelphia's unbeaten postseason ace Cole Hamels starting Game 5, looks more like an uphill climb than ever.
Tampa Bay's saving grace may be that all those kids take their cues from manager Joe Maddon, who at 54 has already forgotten more about panicking than most of them will ever learn.
"The mantra has been one at a time. I want to approach it that way. That's how we've approached the whole season," he said. "I don't want us looking any further ahead than that."
To prove his point, Maddon headed back to his office, lifted the lid on a pizza, sat down behind his desk and pulled the cork out of a good bottle of red wine. But he, at least, had the benefit of being a member of the Angels staff when they won a World Series in 2002. The flip side of the Rays' improbable worst-to-first saga is that only six players have postseason experience. It's hard to pretend you've been there before when you haven't.
Just outside his door, even as Maddon's routine projected an aura calm, the mood in the rest of the clubhouse was anything but relaxed. Nobody was eating, no music was playing and answers were hard to come by.
Longoria was stuck in the center of a throng of reporters, saying he, too, thought he tagged Rollins, "but it wasn't worth getting all worked up." He said essentially the same thing about his struggles at the plate, which appear to be the result of chasing too many bad pitches: "You just don't go up with the bat on your shoulder and hope you break out of a slump."
But then, perhaps remembering how the Rays let the Red Sox back into the ALCS and still managed to win an epic Game 7, Longoria mustered up his courage and added: "We've been written off plenty of times before."
Cliff Floyd, who is inactive for the series but at 35 remains the Rays' resident sage, concurred. "We've come back from so much that if you doubt us for a minute, you end up looking like a clown."
But a moment later, Floyd conceded, "This is the worst people have seen this team play."
Before Game 4, Maddon talked about the five-man infield he deployed in the bottom of the ninth the previous night, when the Phils had the bases loaded and he brought Ben Zobrist in from right field. A topped grounder to third by Carlos Ruiz rolled too slowly for Longoria to throw home for the force play and prevent the winning run.
Even so, the manager said he wouldn't hesitate to use it again, and maybe even make it a sextet.
But the way the Philly bats have come alive _ of the 15 runs they've scored in two nights here, 11 have come via the home run _ if Maddon has any fielders to spare, he might be better served sticking them in the seats beyond the outfield walls.
___
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org


Updated : 2021-05-10 14:05 GMT+08:00