So the Rays are in a 2-0 hole in the best-of-five American League Divisional Series to the Texas Rangers and it might have been completely avoidable if not for the appearance, at least, that manager Joe Maddon was totally unprepared for the Texas Rangers.
There have been enough moments of Maddon genius to make the occasional blunders irrelevant and even forgotten.
But the problems started with the postseason roster and every big decision since then has been mind-boggling. It should be no surprise that the Rays are one game away from ending their season.
Putting James Shields in the postseason rotation seemed more a move of loyalty rather than selecting the best three pitchers on the team. Shields has playoff experience but it came two years ago when Dioner Navarro was a .300 hitter, Ben Zobrist was playing out of his mind, and Evan Longoria was catching everyone by surprise.
This year’s Rays have the lowest batting average in franchise history. Think about that. Think about the worst Devil Rays team you can remember. This team is statistically worse in terms of batting average.
So while Shields made sense two years ago when there was a little offensive cushion to work with, he doesn’t have that this year and his 5.18 ERA didn’t seem to belong.
Maddon felt the need to have him in the rotation, as if he didn’t have another option when he certainly did in Jeff Niemann, who was back to his old self in his last two starts of the regular season.
But at least Niemann made the roster and acted as security in case one of the starters got in trouble early.
Jeremy Hellickson, who stepped right into being a Major League starter before being tossed to the bullpen where his ERA jumped seven points, could have been a similar security to Niemann. Instead, Hellickson didn’t make the postseason roster at all.
Willy Aybar, a switch-hitter with respectable numbers given his part-time status, was left off the postseason roster.
Instead, the Rays dusted off Rocco Baldelli, who has 25 plate appearances in 10 games this season and put him in as the designated hitter.
Although this was the most puzzling part of the Game 1 lineup, it wasn’t the only head-scratcher.
Right-handed batters have a .221 average against Rangers Game 1 starter Cliff Lee, who hadn’t beaten the Rays all season. Left-handed batters have a .281 average.
Inexplicably, Maddon kept lefty catcher John Jaso out of the lineup in favor of righty catcher Kelly Shoppach, who had 71 strikeouts in 158 at-bats during the regular season.
Shoppach had struck out in 45 percent of his at-bats and was starting the first game of the playoffs (and unbelievably the second too), against the pitcher who is better against righties than lefties.
Meanwhile, lefties Reid Brignac, Dan Johnson, and Matt Joyce, who have been good hitters, relatively speaking, were relegated to the bench and late-game pinch-hitting.
For all the talk we hear about what a great thinker and mastermind Maddon is, it seems he overlooked a vital stat of Lee’s that took about three minutes to look up.
You can’t suddenly be horrified by the Rays’ lack of offense. They got here with these batting averages by getting on base and disrupting pitchers with their base running and speed.
Navarro would have been a better option as the second catcher because he can at least lay a bunt down and throw runners out. Instead, he’s hanging out in Venezuela while Shoppach whiffs again and again and provides no threat to Rangers base runners.
How Maddon can justify that Shoppach deserves to start over Jaso is a mystery. Shoppach’s stats don’t say he deserves the start and neither did his Game 1 performance (0-3, 1 strikeout). And if Game 2 (0-3, 2 strikeouts) didn’t convince Maddon to pull Shoppach for Game 3, maybe someone should check what exactly is in those One-A-Day vitamins.
On Thursday, the Rays successfully appealed to Major League Baseball to remove Baldelli from the postseason roster for medical reasons in favor of Aybar, That whole thing reeks of Maddon-style trickeration. Perhaps he realized Baldelli was a mistake. Perhaps he spotted a loophole in the rules that would have allowed Baldelli to be available for Lee and planned all along to only have Baldelli for that one game.
But the very obvious strategy of loading the lineup with lefties against Lee somehow eluded Maddon.
In Game 2, Maddon yanked Shields in the fourth inning with two runners on, likely because he was afraid Shields would give up a home run. If that fear existed, why put Shields in the rotation in the first place?
Maddon put in Chad Qualls to face Ranger Michael Young. Young had two strikes that went to a full count, though it was pretty obvious he didn’t check his swing. He was out. They blew the call. But there was no ferocious argument from Maddon.
Qualls gave-up the three-run home run to Young that the Rays were trying to avoid in the first place and THEN Maddon decided to launch into his offensive.
What was he arguing at that point? That the umpires shouldn’t have let him pull Shields? That it was the umpires’ fault that Qualls gave up the demoralizing blast?
Maddon is a gambler. He's a thinker. And at the worst possible time, he’s become a bumbler and a dud.