In a thicket of thorns, optimism takes root

By Gary Shelton, Times Columnist
Published September 26, 2007

At first glance, the old neighborhood looks as bad as ever.

The skies are still gray. The trees are dying. The odor is as bad as ever. In the distance, you can see the tombstones of seasons past.

No matter how hard you try to pretty it up, last place is still Stinkville. Just like last year, just like most years for the Rays, last place is the last place a team wants to be.

And yet, somehow this time feels better, for perhaps the first time, last place doesn't feel like home.

Granted, it sounds like a ridiculous thing to compare one last-place finish to another, particularly when a franchise has eight others available for measure. Nine last places in 10 years is only slightly less regular than, say, gravity.

If you go by the bottom line, this season will finish pretty much like a lot of others. Once again, the Rays will win 60-something. Once again, they will lose 90-something. Once again, they haven't spent enough, drawn enough or pitched enough.

And yet, somehow this feels different.

This time, for perhaps the first time, last place does not include that familiar feeling of hopelessness.

If nothing else, give Tampa Bay credit for this: It knows what last place looks like. It has seen enough false hope and heard enough false promises to distinguish them from the real thing. It has seen bad teams that were destined to be bad all over again.

"This definitely feels different," said outfielder Jonny Gomes, who has been on four last-place teams in his five years. "For a while, the Devil Rays were nothing but a bunch of prospects, a bunch of could-be's. But the numbers don't lie. This isn't just hope. We've got hard statistics."

Take Carlos Pena's 42 home runs and Carl Crawford's 50 steals and Scott Kazmir's 229 strikeouts and James Shields' 215 innings. Consider that B.J. Upton found a home and Delmon Young made a run at rookie of the year and Akinori Iwamura translated just fine.

The more you look at what this Rays season has been, in fact, the more this question comes to mind: How in the heck did this team finish last, anyway?

Most years, there hasn't been much to debate about the Rays' finish. There was no doubt that's where they belonged. Most years, they have looked last, smelled last, sounded last.

This time? As Chuck LaMar is my witness, this didn't feel like last place.

"Not at all," manager Joe Maddon said. "This doesn't feel at all like last year. We have played good baseball since Aug. 1. No one likes last place, but we have played well against some teams that may be playing in the World Series."

Never has there been a Rays team with this much talent. Never has there been a team with this much promise. Compared to last year's team, the Rays are better at first, at second, at third, in center and in right. They are as good in left. Their closer, Al Reyes, is better.

Yet, after Tuesday's victory over the Yankees, the Rays had won only four times more than last year's total of 61.

In other words, the Rays' weak spots this year - in particular, the back end of the rotation and the bullpen - were really weak spots. Never has the gap between the good players and the rest been as wide as with this one.

Which, of course, is where the front office comes in. Again.

Around here, two things are commonplace. One is the Rays finish last, and the other is that everyone tells each other how much more money the Rays have to spend. It's what we do instead of talking about the pitching rotation for the playoffs.

This year, that feels different, too.

This year, you aren't asking the Rays to spend. You're asking them to invest.

Again, this is why this season seems better than previous ones. With this many assets on the field, it makes you wonder what a difference two pieces, or three, or four might make.

No, Stuart Sternberg isn't likely to walk through an agents' convention and make it rain with blank checks. His payroll will go up (what other direction is conceivable?), but in a weak free-agency year, no one should expect him to sit at the high-stakes table.

Still, Rays vice president Andrew Friedman has been creative in the last couple of years. The Rays found Pena and Iwamura and Brendan Harris. At the trade deadline, they brought in Dan Wheeler, who has been a nice addition.

This offseason, if they can do the same with a starter, a reliever and a shortstop, maybe then .500 doesn't seem out of reach. Does it?

When you get down to it, that's what is different about Last Place: The 2007 Edition. This time, a little optimism doesn't sound out of place. This time, a little hope seems possible.

This time, it is possible to believe the Rays have finished in last place for the last time.

Gary Shelton can be reached at (727) 893-8805.