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10/05/09 1:37 AM ET

Slow start, tough finish frame Rays' 2009

Club unable to recapture magic of '08 pennant winners

ST. PETERSBURG -- And they looked so good on paper ...

Unfortunately for the Rays, a year after winning the American League East and advancing to the World Series, they found out there is quite a difference between looking good on paper and being a championship team.

"It's pretty disappointing," James Shields said. "We had some high hopes for this season. To end our season the way we did, it's not us. We have got to get better. We've got to reassess what we did this season and try to get better next year."

When the Rays left Port Charlotte, Fla., at the end of Spring Training, they looked far more solid than the previous year's AL championship team. Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, some of the players brought in to improve the club did not produce. The most notable of these being designated hitter Pat Burrell, who banked a two-year, $16 million deal, then fell far short of expectations. In addition, there were regular players such as Dioner Navarro and B.J. Upton, whose performances were less than inspiring.

But no one player can be blamed for a 2009 season in which the team seemed out of sync from the beginning. Foreshadowing a season to come, the Rays finished April with a 9-14 record, then spent the rest of the season trying to make up for their less-than-auspicious beginning.

"I really believe with a better April, we would have shown better toward the end here," manager Joe Maddon said. "I think if you're in a better position toward the end, you're going to find that energy that you need, where at least you're even or close.

"We found out as we constantly tried to fight from behind that it's difficult to catch up and then surpass because there's so much energy involved in catching up itself. The lesson to be learned from this year, hopefully for all of us, is the importance of getting off to a good start."

Following its dismal 9-14 April, Tampa Bay posted a 16-14 mark in May before the club finally seemed to hit its stride in June with a 19-7 mark. At this point of the season, the Rays seemed to be turning around their fortunes. But they finished July with a 12-12 record, leaving them six games behind the division-leading Yankees.

While Tampa Bay continued to tread water in August, posting a 15-12 record, New York put its foot down on the accelerator, expanding its lead over the defending AL champs to 11 1/2 games.

Once September rolled around, the Yankees had pretty much locked up the division title by the time the Red Sox came to Tropicana Field for a three-game set. Boston, which held a four-game lead over Tampa Bay in the AL Wild Card race at that time, proceeded to take two out of three to expand its lead to five games and trigger a 1-10 start to September for Maddon's club.

In essence, the Rays followed their inspiring 2008 with another quality season, but the chemistry never seemed to come about to produce the same magic seen in '08.

"We have to come out here and earn it every day," Carl Crawford said. "Play hard every day and not just assume because of who were are, or what the media says, that we're going to go out there and beat the other teams. We have to go out there and do it. We have to learn from this experience. Next year we have to come ready to play all of the games."

Record: 84-78, third place in AL East

Defining moment: Even though 12 1/2 games separated the Rays from the first-place Yankees in the AL East when the sun rose on Sept. 1, they still had a chance to enter the postseason as the AL Wild Card. What happened over the next 16 days dramatically changed all of that, as Tampa Bay experienced an 11-game losing streak and lost 14 of 16.

During that difficult period, the Rays were outscored, 92-50, and the team quietly dropped out of the race.

What went right: The Rays hit for power, setting a new single-season club record for home runs, and several players had great offensive seasons, including Crawford, Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, Jason Bartlett and Carlos Pena.

In addition to the Rays' power, they put on a demonstration of speed on a nightly basis that made them one of the most feared teams in the Major Leagues when it came to disruptions on the basepaths.

They received a real boost to the starting rotation from rookie starters David Price, Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis, who appear to be headed for regular duty in future rotations for Tampa Bay.

Once again, the Rays enjoyed a large advantage at Tropicana Field, where they enjoyed one of the best home records in baseball.

What went wrong: While the Rays were capable of scoring a lot of runs, they scored their runs in clumps, which translated to a lot of runs on some nights and few runs on other nights.

Much of that problem could be pinpointed by the fact Rays hitters faced a collection of starters in the AL East unmatched by other divisions. But more than anything, the element of timely hitting was missing when compared to 2008, when walk-off wins seemed to be a daily occurrence.

The bullpen experienced a hot streak during the middle of the summer, when Tampa Bay seemed to play its best baseball. But ultimately, the bullpen seemed to run out of gas at the end of August and struggled for the remainder of the season.

Finally, the Rays did not play well on the road, winning just 32 of their 81 games away from St. Petersburg.

Biggest surprise: Niemann went to Spring Training and had to win a competition with Jason Hammel for the fifth spot in the rotation.

Not until the day before the Rays were scheduled to open the season at Boston did Niemann find out that he had won the competition. Subsequently, Hammel was traded to Colorado.

After getting rocked in his first start of the season, in Baltimore, Niemann continued to improve in the starts that followed, including the team's first complete game of the year, on June 3 against the Royals when he won, 9-0.

By the end of the season, Niemann had proven himself as a legitimate member of the rotation.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.