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State of the Rays: Tampa Bay's bats heat up in May

After underperforming in April, the Rays came alive at the plate in May.

For the Tampa Bay Rays, May was a month of an offensive awakening. It seems odd to consider now, but there was a time in April, particularly during a nine-game road trip to Texas and Boston and Baltimore, when there was concern about how the Rays would produce enough to stay competitive.

At the time, newcomers such as James Loney and Yunel Escobar hit below .200 with an on-base percentage of less than .300. (Escobar's average dropped as low as .089 with an on-base percentage of .163 after play April 16.) From April 7-15, Tampa Bay was shutout twice and held to less than three runs six times.

Meanwhile, manager Joe Maddon, aware of the trend, addressed the issue both online and to media members numerous times. Ever the optimist, he tweeted April 14, after a 5-0 loss to the Boston Red Sox, "When your guys aren't hitting u have to stay with them because it will come around. We've been here be4. This isn't the road less traveled." There was reason for doubt.

Turns out, however, Maddon's faith was well placed. More than a month later, the question for his club has turned from, "Where will the Rays receive runs?" to "Can they maintain this pace?"

The issue, of course, is a good one to have. It highlights Tampa Bay's rise from mediocrity (12-14 in April) to a group that climbed to .500 after play May 11 to a team that looks as strong as any in the American League East, before an intriguing three-game series against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park.  

Sure, the Rays still have issues. All teams do in June's first week. For Tampa Bay, those can be found on the mound. May also was the month of four blown saves by closer Fernando Rodney (he has five total). At times, the bullpen has looked fatigued since left-hander David Price was placed on the 15-day disabled list May 16 with a strained left triceps.

Still, heating bats are a key development. The date April 17, when the Rays scored six runs to beat the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards, is often cited as a turnaround's beginning. The warming trend turned hot in May, when Tampa Bay closed the month an AL-best 18-10.

During that time, there were many notable individual efforts. Kelly Johnson went a team-high .330 at the plate with seven home runs and 26 RBI. Evan Longoria went .322 with three home runs and 17 RBI. Loney hit .306 with six home runs and 17 RBI. Even Escobar, who looked uncomfortable so often early, went .287 with two home runs and 17 RBI.

As a group, the Rays finished first in the majors in May in RBI produced (160), second in on-base percentage (.352) and fourth in batting average (.280). The rebound from a ho-hum April was significant, especially when considering no other team had more RBI in May than the Tigers' 145. The surge places Tampa Bay in a favorable position, after the Red Sox and New York Yankees fell off their strong early pace.

As threatening as the Rays have looked of late, though, it seems unreasonable to assume they will score five, seven, eight, nine, 10 and 11 runs -- which they have done since May 26 – on a consistent basis. Their hitting has somewhat masked the void in the rotation left by Price's absence. The next nine days, which include games against the Orioles and Red Sox in addition to the AL Central-leading Tigers, should offer interesting tests.

Yet for Tampa Bay's offense, the narrative has changed since those frustrating days at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Fenway Park and Camden Yards. This is a different story.

Can the Rays maintain the pace?

June will show.

What's Hot

Suddenly, gaining the American League East lead looks attainable. 

Tampa Bay is 7-3 in its last 10 games, now three games behind the Boston Red Sox. Since May 26, the Rays are 7-1, with victories in that span over the New York Yankees, Miami Marlins and Cleveland Indians. 

Tampa Bay's offense, of course, is the story. But for the most part, its pitching has done enough to make the most of outbursts at the plate.

What's Not

Manager Joe Maddon became an expert in juggling his roster to keep a taxed bullpen fresh. 

Here is a review of the many roster moves over the past week, all with left-hander David Price missing from the rotation: Right-hander Jake Odorizzi was optioned to Triple-A Durham after giving up nine runs and 13 hits in nine innings in two starts; right-hander Alex Colome was recalled and earned a victory over the Miami Marlins in his major league debut last Tuesday;  reliever Jeff Beliveau was recalled and Colome was optioned; right-hander Chris Archer was recalled (lost Saturday) and Beliveau was optioned; reliever Alex Torres was recalled; and reliever Josh Lueke was optioned. 

One man in, another out. The pitchers' corner of the Rays clubhouse became a revolving door.

Quotes of the week

"That guy there, with good health, over the next three, four, five years, whatever, could be the best pitcher in the game. That's it. That's how good he is." 
– Manager Joe Maddon, on Miami Marlins right-hander Jose Fernandez, after the young pitcher went 3 1/2 innings in Tampa Bay's 10-6 victory at Tropicana Field last Monday. Fernandez, a 20-year-old rookie, is 3-3 with a 3.34 ERA in 11 starts.

"I have faith in Sam. He was our first-base coach. He told me to be aggressive." 
– Sarah Fuld, wife of outfielder Sam Fuld, after scoring the winning run in the Rays Wives' 13-12 victory over the Marlins Wives in the third annual "Citrus Classic" charity softball game last Monday at Tropicana Field. Rays Wives played on behalf of Autism Speaks, an autism advocacy organization, and Marlins Wives for Shake-A-Leg Miami, a non-profit organization in South Florida that works with kids and adults with physical, developmental and economic challenges in a marine setting.

"Eh, we're not going to talk about all that. It's baseball. … It's two months. That's why we play six." 
– Rays infielder/outfielder Kelly Johnson, after going 4 for 5 with two home runs in the victory over the Marlins last Monday to continue his hot May. Johnson had six RBI in the win.  

Numbers game

9-1: Tampa Bay's record in interleague play this season, after earning a four-game sweep of the Miami Marlins in the Citrus Series. The Rays have also won series against the San Diego Padres (3-0) and Colorado Rockies (2-1).

90: Estimated minutes of sleep received by reliever Alex Torres after he learned he was promoted to the Rays from Triple-A Durham at about 3 a.m. ET last Saturday. He arrived at the Raleigh-Durham airport about two hours later, before allowing just one hit and one walk in four innings during the Cleveland Indians' 5-0 victory later that afternoon at Progressive Field.

19: Consecutive games Evan Longoria had gone without a home run until his 390-foot, two-run shot to right field in the eighth inning of Tampa Bay's 11-3 victory over Cleveland on Sunday. The homerless drought had matched the longest of his career (three previous times, August 2010 the most recent).

Tweet of the week
Not everything that happens after midnight is bad. 

The Rays and Cleveland Indians were part of late-night, er, early morning play at Progressive Field that neither team will forget soon. 

The first game of the three-game series Friday was scheduled to start at 7:05 p.m., but it was delayed three times because of rain before resuming in the second inning at 12:13 a.m. ET. Tampa Bay won, 9-2, with the final out recorded at 2:53 a.m. 

A few thousand drenched souls stuck around to watch the sleep-deprived spectacle. The act was not lost on Evan Longoria.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.