ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Joe Maddon lounged in his chair behind the desk in his clubhouse office as a man nearly at a loss for words. It was the sensation felt after another job well done Saturday by his Tampa Bay Rays, baseball’s hottest team with no signs of cooling soon.
He had preached patience so many times from this space in previous weeks, during those dark nights in late May and early June, when the Rays’ hopes for reaching the postseason for the fifth time in seven years appeared on life support. Time after time, he said he had faith that his team would rebound to become a playoff contender, and time after time, it was hard not for eyes to roll with Tampa Bay sinking in the standings to become the majors’ worst.
Ready or not, it’s time to believe the man. After their 3-0 win over the Boston Red Sox, the Rays’ ninth consecutive victory, they are in the middle of something potentially spectacular.
"We’ve been playing a lot of good games," Maddon said, shrugging after the latest success story. "Understatement. Captain Obvious. We’ve been playing well. We’ve been playing baseball so much better than we did earlier in the season."
Understatement. Nothing more needs to be said.
Watching the Rays now presents an odd feeling to those who have tracked them since Opening Day. They look complete, with timely offense to complement strong pitching and defense, an ethos that this roster was built on in the first place.
Almost nothing about the Rays seemed right before that surprise 10-2 run from June 25-July 6, and certainly, a no-drama dispatching of an opponent like the one produced Saturday would have been a rarity during the season’s early slog.
"We’ve been playing well for a couple months now," said Rays reliever Grant Balfour, who allowed one hit and struck out one in 1 2/3 innings as part of four bullpen members who followed right-hander Jeremy Hellickson’s 4 2/3-inning start. "It’s just worked out that we’re putting one of those runs together. We’re not really looking at it. You know what’s happening, but I think you’re just kind of numb to that kind of thing."
The fact that such a simple approach can be enjoyed during this winning streak reveals what many throughout baseball thought was possible at spring training’s end: That the Rays had World Series-caliber talent on their roster, if only health and momentum allowed the promise to reach its potential. Many expected this. However, neither health nor momentum was kind to Tampa Bay for most of the season’s first half.
The landscape has changed. That’s not to say it will last, though it might. Faces like infielder Logan Forsythe and outfielder Kevin Kiermaier have risen, and the Rays have discovered an effective late-inning bullpen duo of Brad Boxberger and Jake McGee.
Baseball is a game of stamina and evolution, and while the Rays’ current formula for success doesn’t look exactly like how many predicted in March — Wil Myers is injured, Evan Longoria has underperformed, Balfour has long been demoted from the closer role — something special has percolated in their clubhouse.
"We’ve had great pitching performances," Rays second baseman Ben Zobrist said. "We’ve consistently had the pitching, but yeah, the offense at times you get a big hit, and at times you just get a bunch of singles and knock in runs that way. Find runners on base. … That’s what we have to do offensively, and it’s been working for us."
The Rays’ deficit in the American League East is down to 6 1/2 games to the Baltimore Orioles, and they trail the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays by 3 1/2 games for the AL’s second wild-card spot. It’s easy to look at the Rays and consider them, at the least, a serious threat to become a wild-card winner again.
And why not shoot for the AL East title?
"We’re playing September baseball in July," Maddon said.
It’s easy to become caught up in how much fun the urgency can be, the daily standings check of both the AL East and AL wild-card races, the tracking of a game played between the Yankees and Blue Jays on Saturday in the Bronx with interest worthy of two months into the future, the feeling that each Rays game carries the weight of five with the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approaching.
The Rays placed themselves in a position to become one of the majors’ most disappointing stories of the year, and while they remain flawed, the rally Maddon saw all along could make them one of the craziest comeback stories in recent memory.
"It’s really impressive," Maddon said. "We’ve just been playing good baseball. Everybody’s been watching. While we’ve been on the road, we’re playing good baseball. Again at home, we have to play really well here in order to make this all work."
So far, it has been so, so good since late June, with their playoff chances increasing by the day. No overstatement necessary.