State of the Rays: Tough foes await after hot 1st-half finish

The Tampa Bay Rays enter the All-Star break as baseball’s hottest team, the result of beating opponents they should and a return to what has made them consistent winners in the past.

Their record, 55-41, places them 2.5 games behind the Boston Red Sox in the American League East. If the season ended today, a wild-card game would be played at Tropicana Field.

That fact is notable because of how strange, at points, the first half appeared.

It was a time of David Price’s struggle to maintain momentum from his AL Cy Young Award-winning season, then his 47-day effort to return from a strained left triceps that placed him on the disabled list for the first time in his career.

It was a time of Fernando Rodney’s five blown saves — three over nine days in May — before he converted 13 consecutive chances to bring his total to 22. It was a time of a significant call-up (Wil Myers) and prolonged slumps (Luke Scott in early June, Evan Longoria now).

Catcher Jose Lobaton said it best Sunday morning, when reflecting on the Rays’ first half: “Baseball is weird. Baseball is something you can’t understand.”

“Right now, we haven’t had anything that has stayed (consistent),” Lobaton added. “We’ve been kind of up and down, up and down. In the beginning, the pitchers weren’t that good. Now they’re doing very good. The starters were OK, now they’re doing very good. Hitting, some guys started slow. This game is so weird.”

Weird or not, the Rays have something strong going. Of late, pitching is the reason why.

Chris Archer’s first career complete game Sunday, in Tampa Bay’s victory over the Houston Astros, marked the 15th consecutive quality start by the Rays’ rotation. That total is a franchise record, topping the previous mark of nine from April 28-May 7, 2010. In Tampa Bay’s last 21 games, Rays starters lead the majors with 13 victories.

“If these guys continue to go deep into games, it gives you a chance to win a lot of games,” reliever Jamey Wright said. “They got off to a rough start, with the exception of Matt Moore. Price and Helly, now these guys have found a rhythm. It’s almost like you don’t want the All-Star break to come.”

All along, manager Joe Maddon has envisioned this formula. Sure, predictable production from Longoria (a team-high 18 home runs 52 RBI), as well as surprise hitting by James Loney (a team-high .315 average) are nice. But Maddon has preached that pitching and defense are the keys if Tampa Bay is to make a long postseason run.

In this regard, there are reasons for the Rays to anticipate the second half. Price has looked stellar since returning from the DL, going 2-1 with a 1.08 ERA in three starts against the Astros (twice) and Chicago White Sox. Matt Moore received a deserving All-Star nod after finishing the first half 13-3 with a 3.44 ERA.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Hellickson has recovered well (six victories in his last seven decisions) after rocky starts in April and May. Alex Cobb is progressing in his recovery from a mild concussion and could return by mid-August.

“I think it’s happening at a good time,” Maddon said of the break. “I think it will refresh the bullpen a bit, which is very important right now. To give those guys a couple days off is probably the most important thing among everything that’s going to happen with this rest. The starters are fine. I think the team on the field, overall, is pretty good. I think we’ve taken care of them.”
 
Though the Rays ended the first half well, more will be learned immediately after the break. At 10-game road trip against AL East opponents, particularly a four-game series against the Red Sox, will offer insight into if this recent hot streak goes deeper than success against sub-.500 opposition.
 
Make no mistake: This is a good time for Tampa Bay. Energy was obvious in the latest homestand, during which the Rays finished 9-1. Lobaton smiled a bit Sunday, when asked about why his team has played well enough to threaten the Red Sox at the top of the division.
 
“I don’t think we have changed anything,” he said. “The funny thing is that we’ve been winning.”  
 
That answer includes some humor, but there is meaning to his words. Given the first half’s twists — Remember when penguins were brought into the clubhouse to help players “chill out” early in the season? — the Rays find themselves on a hot run leading into the season’s most crucial stretch. The reason: They have remained consistent.
 
That is where they want to be.
 
That is where they want to stay.
 
What’s Hot
 
Wil Myers continues to show that he can handle the majors. He hit .316 from July 4-14, a span that included four RBI and four multiple-hit games. His average stands at .288 with three home runs and 15 RBI.
 
Perhaps most impressive of all is Myers’ composure. Maddon has repeatedly talked about how Myers is a product of his upbringing, his influences. (The manager has pointed out quirks in Myers’ approach to the game, such as when the young player dips his hand into the dirt before each plate appearance, as a sign that Myers is comfortable with who he is.)
 
It is hard to measure why some players make the transition to the majors more seamlessly than others. But Myers’ progression so far indicates that his promotion was the right call.
 
What’s Not
 
Maddon seems far from alarmed about Evan Longoria’s recent slump, but it is worthy of mention. Longoria hit .139 from July 5-14, dropping his average from .295 to .278. He had four RBI in the stretch, but he has had only one multiple-hit game this month (July 2 vs. the Houston Astros).
 
A wider scope shows the extent of Longoria’s slide. He had a home run against the Astros, but that was his first extra-base hit since he had a double and a home run in a loss to the New York Yankees on June 22.
 
The case can be made that Longoria was the Rays’ most valuable player of the first half. His importance to Tampa Bay’s hopes for a second-half run is obvious. Still, he is searching to find himself now.
 
Quotes of the week
 
“It became more of a favorite era of mine after it was over. When you’re actually living the era, I was kind of the anti-disco guy. (I was) more rock ‘n’ roll, long hair. … I was always appreciative of how the women dressed during that era, though.”
 
— Manager Joe Maddon, reflecting on a former era before “Disco Night” on Saturday at Tropicana Field. The themed event included music from the time, and a KC and the Sunshine Band concert capped the evening.
 
“You have to play teams that are not playing up to their potential sometimes, (and) you’ve got to make sure you put hay in the barn at that point. We were able to do that.”
 
— Maddon, after the Rays’ victory over the Houston Astros on Sunday at Tropicana Field. The result closed a 12-2 stretch against teams with losing records (Astros, Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins).
 
“Once batters get in there, the intensity goes up a little bit. Body parts start flying around in different directions that you’re not used to. It takes a little while to get settled down. I felt toward the end of my session, it got a lot better. I was happy with it.”
 
— Right-hander Alex Cobb, after throwing live batting practice Sunday at Tropicana Field as part of his continued recovery from a mild concussion. He has been on the concussion disabled list since June 16, a day after a line drive off the bat of the Kansas City Royals’ Eric Hosmer struck him on the right ear.
 
Numbers game
 
55: Victories earned by the Rays in the season’s first half, tying a franchise record set in 2008. They started 14-18, reached .500 (18-18) after play May 11 and have not had a losing record since.
 
17: Games won by the Rays, out of 21, before the All-Star break (the streak also includes victories in 14 of their last 16). They are a major-league-best 41-23 since May 8.
 
11: Shutouts earned by Rays pitchers, third-most in the majors behind the Pittsburgh Pirates (13) and Cleveland Indians (12). They own a major-league-high 26 since the start of the 2012 season.

Tweet of the week


Pop star Carly Rae Jepsen meant well. Really, she did. Of course, celebrity guests and first pitches are not new sensations at Tropicana Field – Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy tossed one in June – but they usually end without fanfare, without memory.
 
But Jepsen’s effort Sunday, before the Rays’ game against the Houston Astros, will live for some time. She deserves kudos for being a good sport. She laughed and covered her face after the ball bounced off a camera near the first-base line. She even posted photos of the event on Instagram.
 
Her effort will go down as one of the worst ceremonial throws in history. But she accomplished something many first-pitch participants do not: She was memorable.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford

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