December 7, 2022

Tropicana Field: The Curse of Tropicana

The Tampa Bay Rays were eliminated from the playoffs Wednesday night, and it wasn’t because of their pitching. A ground-rule double in the seventh inning of Game 3 of the ALDS against Boston Red Sox allowed them to score two more runs and secure a 5-3 lead that put an end to Tropicana Field’s postseason run.

What a run it was. The Rays became the first team in history to make five postseason appearances in a six-year span, and they did it despite only finishing above .500 twice.

While going under .500 three times is possible when you have a weak rotation, the Rays managed that feat with one of the best young pitching staffs in baseball. Since 2008, Tampa Bay has posted the lowest ERA among American League teams every season but one.

But if you’ve been watching their games closely, it’s easy to see that run prevention may not be the only thing holding them back from title contention. The Rays are moving on without much help from their offense in all three of their postseason series this season. In fact, their most productive offensive performance was by a pitcher.

Their 2012 postseason offense is the most disappointing of any team in recent memory. In this era where scoring is at an all-time high, they’ve scored 19 runs and hit three home runs in nine games against two of baseball’s best rotations. The only reason the Rays haven’t been swept yet is because their pitching staff, led by David Price and Matt Moore , has been too good.

Perhaps everyone expected this to happen after the Rays signed Carlos Peña to a one-year deal worth $7.25 million with an option for 2013. The contract was met with mixed reviews; some thought it was a steal since he’s just one year removed from hitting 36 home runs, while others were stunned that he received over $7 million despite his brutal 2012 campaign.

Peña showed promise in spring training by clubbing four home runs and putting up a .941 OPS, but it was all for naught since he went on the disabled list with an abdominal strain on April 4. He overshot his rehab assignment and didn’t get back to the majors until May 26, but went on a tear almost immediately after his return. In the first five games of his second stint with Tampa Bay, he hit .500 (9-for-18) with four home runs and eight RBIs to go along with a 1.684 OPS.

But after accumulating an impressive .939 OPS with 11 home runs and 26 RBIs in May, Peña’s production dropped to an abysmal .426 OPS with three long balls and nine RBIs in June. He mentioned that he was dealing with tendonitis in his wrist before the month ended, which is likely the main reason he hit so poorly.

Although his overall numbers are excellent (.272/.402/.531), Peña’s production began to decline dramatically in July (.650 OPS) and plummeted even further in August (.508 OPS). His plate discipline has also taken a nosedive, as he struck out or walked at least 20 percent of the time in every month except August.

Then again, he’s not alone in this – the Rays’ entire team has struggled to score runs ever since Peña entered his free-fall. But it’s not like he can do any worse than Fernando Rodney , who followed up an excellent 2011 season with a total disaster in 2012. The 33-year-old’s control has abandoned him, as he posted a career-worst 4.20 BB/9 IP in 2012, along with his highest ERA (3.38) since 2007 when he pitched just 12.1 innings for the Chicago Cubs .

It looked like Rodney would be traded at one point during the season, but that never happened and he’s since settled into the closer role. Tampa Bay wouldn’t have much of a bullpen without him, though, as no other reliever besides Rodney has posted an ERA under 3.00 in 2012.

So when Peña isn’t hitting or producing runs to support their pitchers, what exactly are the Rays doing wrong? Their daily lineup is filled with scrappy players who are great at getting on base, but they don’t have much power.

An example of this would be Ben Zobrist , who’s enjoying another solid season with a .792 OPS and 52 RBIs despite missing 2 1/2 weeks in June due to a strained oblique muscle. Since he’s an excellent table-setter, the Rays are able to score runs when he’s in their lineup. But when he’s not playing, they typically struggle to produce any offense at all.

The one player who has been immune from struggles is Desmond Jennings , who leads Tampa Bay with 16 home runs and 57 RBIs despite inconsistent playing time due to his platoon status.