ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — The Tampa Bay Rays are no longer accustomed to playing meaningless games, so the past week or so has been especially tough on a team that began the season with expectations of contending for a World Series berth.
Instead of making a fifth trip to the playoffs in seven years, disappointed players and manager Joe Maddon are getting an early start on their offseason after posting the club's first losing record since 2007 — the final year they were known as the dreadful Devil Rays, perennial losers who would have welcomed a 77-85 finish.
Fourth-place in the AL East would have been progress, even acceptable, for the old Devil Rays. But that's no longer the case.
Since 2008, when the franchise adopted new colors, changed uniforms and dropped the "Devil" from its name, the Rays have played a total of 21 games after being mathematically eliminated from postseason contention, including eight this year.
"It's just a sickening feeling to go into late September, and watching teams start celebrating, and watching postseason commercials on TV and knowing you're not going to be part of it," pitcher Alex Cobb said. "It's a feeling we don't want to have to repeat next year."
Maddon, who's guided the franchise to six winning records, four playoff berths, two division titles and one AL pennant in nine seasons, agreed.
"I won't be able to watch playoff games. I'll shut down after this because I just can't," the manager said. "I really believe that we should be there, and we did not get it done. ... I just need to put it down for a bit."
Tampa Bay's frustrating season can be dissected into three parts:
— A 24-42 start, capped by a stretch in which the Rays lost 14 of 15, saddled the Rays with the worst record in baseball on June 10.
— A major league-best 37-19 record from June 11 to Aug. 15 that enabled the team to climb from a season-low 18 games below .500 back to the break-even point with plenty of time left to chase a playoff spot.
— A 16-26 mark after Aug. 16, a slide that contributed to Tampa Bay being the only team in the majors with a losing record (36-45) at home, compared to a winning record (41-40) on the road.
Despite some nice starting pitching, which remains the team's strongest asset, the hole the Rays dug in the first two months ultimately proved too big to escape.
The pitching staff won six 1-0 games and finished with 22 shutouts, most by an AL team since 1973, the start of the designated hitter era.
But the Rays also were blanked 18 times and offensively finished among the AL's worst in runs per game, batting average and on-base percentage.
"The next big frontier is to figure that out, how do you generate offense in 2015 like you did several years ago when we were able to combine pitching and defense with victories because we came up one-run plus as opposed to one-run minus," Maddon said. "The biggest offseason mental exercise for me is to come up with ideas on how you garner that one extra run we were not able to come up with this year."
Injuries contributed to the struggles, and trading pitching ace David Price certainly didn't help.
But more than anything, the Rays suffered because they got less than expected offensively from key players such as Evan Longoria, Wil Myers, Desmond Jennings, Yunel Escobar and Ben Zobrist.
They scored 612 runs, fewest in franchise history, and hit 117 homers, second fewest in club history.
Considering the team's miserly payroll, the answer to offensive shortcomings likely will have to come from within, beginning with Myers, the 2013 AL rookie of the year who missed 70 games because of a broken right wrist and hit .222 with six homers and 35 RBIs this year.
"It just did not want to work this year and there's no solid explanation," Maddon said.
"You look at it, primarily, the offense did not achieve at the level we thought it would," the manager added. "I think the pitching came around, the defense was good. It wasn't great, but it was doable. We just weren't able to hit enough offensively."