State of the Rays: Good to be back home

To this point, the Tampa Bay Rays’ season has been a display in the ever-changing flow of a major league season, from the slump to a streak, from struggle to recovery then back to some degree of consistency. A 162-game campaign is so long, after all, that variety is the norm, the movement between poor to average to excellent a fluid and constant process.  
 
Consider the past six days an example of this reality. There were plenty of poor sights to begin – dropping two of three games against the Baltimore Orioles closed a tough 2-7 road trip – but the Rays were nothing short of excellent in sweeping the Oakland Athletics at home to end the weekend. With the change to a kinder venue — Tampa Bay’s record in nine games away from Tropicana Field is the majors’ worst — the Rays seemingly transformed into a group that could hit when asked, produce runs when needed and win in ways that were absent before. This was a different team. 
 
“Of course, I’d like to have a better record, absolutely,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said last Friday, before the start of a six-game homestand that includes a visit by the New York Yankees. “But I’m not really concerned yet, because it’s too early to be concerned. If we had been playing as well as we possibly could have played and had this record, I’d be more concerned. We have not even scratched the surface of how well we’re capable of playing, whether it’s hitting, pitching, etc., guys will settle in. They’ll come back to who they are.”
 
They seemed to do so against Oakland. It’s only one series, but the achievement is noticeable. The Athletics arrived in St. Petersburg, Fla., as one of the majors’ hottest squads, but Rays pitchers held them to a woeful 3-for-25 with runners in scoring position. Before Tampa Bay returned home, it had labored at times to produce against the Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox and Orioles in a road trip to forget. But the Rays pounded out 17 runs against the Athletics, a series-high for them this season. 
 
There’s a lesson in all of this, of course: Never read too much into baseball’s extremes, especially in April, because there’s a decent chance the pendulum will swing in a different direction with time. A week ago, the question was, “How can the Rays correct their hitting?” Now, the inquiry facing them is more positive: “How can they preserve what they have?” 
 
“Everybody goes through it,” Rays centerfielder Desmond Jennings told FOX Sports Florida last Friday. “I don’t know – I feel like you just have to keep swinging, keep playing. … It if happens now, if it happens 60 games from now, it’s going to happen. Everybody can’t hit 1.000 the whole season. You’re not just going to go out and hit the whole game. You’re going to go through slumps.”
 
Added Rays designated hitter Shelley Duncan: “It’s really hard if you think if you’re in a slump. But if you’re hitting bad and you don’t think you’re in a slump, it’s not.” 
 
The Rays went through one on the road, and there certainly will be more. They recovered with a patient and powerful display against Oakland, and there certainly will be more of those too. 
 
Maddon was truthful when he said, last Friday, that he’d rather be 10-5 than 5-10, but he also knows he has proven stars (Evan Longoria) and tested arms (David Price) who could find comfort with more experience at the plate and on the mound this season. That’s what makes this time of year interesting: Trends are just starting to take shape, reputations only beginning to form. Little is determined. 
 
The week ahead provides more intriguing challenge. The Rays begin a three-game series against Yankees on Monday night, before starting another road trip that will test their ability to hit away from Tropicana Field. Stops in Chicago, Kansas City and Colorado await, and another watch will begin to see if Tampa Bay will produce with efficient offense or labor in unfamiliar settings. 
 
Early, after living slumps and success, after experiencing struggle then recovery, the Rays have shown they’re no different than any other team this time of year: The work to create an identity is a prolonged process, an inconsistent one at that. 
 
One week, you’re down. The next, you’re up. Such is life.
 
What’s Hot
 
What a difference a trip home makes. An 11-day trek to Texas, Boston and Baltimore produced few positive reflections, and overall, it could not have gone much worse for the Rays. They surrendered five or more runs five times. Their bats turned frigid, scoring two or fewer runs on five occasions. In terms of early season slides, this was bad, and the thought of returning to Tropicana Field likely never felt as good in quite some time. 
 
What awaited them there figured to be another tall task. The Athletics entered a three-game series that began last Friday as one of the majors’ most prolific hitting teams. They had won 12 of their last 14 games. They had jumped to an early lead in the American League West, despite more attention paid in the offseason to the Rangers and Los Angeles Angels. But the Rays turned fortunes on the A’s, controlling them in a sweep that saw Tampa Bay win by a combined score of 17-4.  
 
What’s Not 
 
A need to vent was understandable. The Rays were already burned by one “debatable” call – Ben Zobrist “striking out” to Texas Rangers closer Joe Nathan on April 8 after a pitch low and outside – so Maddon already had a short fuse when it came to umpire rulings he found curious. 
 
Finally, there was a breaking point. Maddon was ejected last Wednesday, for the 28th time in his Rays career, after arguing second-base umpire Brian Knight’s call in the fifth inning following a close play at the base that involved Kelly Johnson against the Orioles in an eventual 6-2 victory. Then, the next night, also against the Orioles, umpires missed Baltimore’s Adam Jones failing to retouch second base during a sequence in the 10th inning of an eventual 10-6 Rays defeat. It wasn’t a banner week for Tampa Bay and its relationship with umpires, to say the least.  
 
Quotes of the week 
 
“It’s only been 11 days? Yeah, we’re ready to get back.”
 
— Joe Maddon, after the conclusion of an 11-day road trip last Thursday that saw the Rays go 2-7 against the Rangers, Red Sox and Orioles. The skid dropped the Rays to 5-10. 
“We wanted to have our guys prep for tonight’s game in another way. … I want our guys to chill out a little bit, play hard and not worry about making mistakes, ever. This is my way of getting the point across.’’
 
— Maddon, after he was asked about his choice to invite a DJ in the Rays clubhouse prior to a 1-0 victory over the Athletics on Saturday. Then on Sunday, the manager was at it again, inviting a magician to perform tricks in front of players. 
 
“Wow! A long time.” 
 
— Right-hander Roberto Hernandez, after the Rays’ 8-1 victory Sunday, his first triumph since Sept. 20, 2011, when he was a member of the Cleveland Indians. Hernandez, 32, became the first Rays starter age 31 or older to earn a victory since Mark Hendrickson on June 20, 2006. 
 
Numbers game 
 
22: Runs scored by the Athletics against the Houston Astros from last Monday through Wednesday before a three-game series at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay held them to four runs in the Rays’ sweep. 
 
4: Home runs hit by Evan Longoria over a five-game span, from last Monday to Friday. He has a team-high four after Sunday. 
 
3: Hits by Yunel Escobar on Sunday, an individual high for the season. He had seven in his first 59 at-bats. 
 
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.