State of the Rays: Upcoming series to reveal much for Rays

This is some start to the second half.

Here comes a taste of October baseball in July, a brief rush of fall-like dramatics to break-up the midsummer grind. NFL training camps kick off around the country soon, including the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Thursday, but the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox will serve as another reminder that a change of season draws closer with each passing week.

The stakes: From Monday through Thursday, the American League East lead will be on the line at Fenway Park.

The intrigue: The Rays (58-41) enter 1.5 games behind the resurgent Red Sox, who have become a surprising fixture at the top of the division under first-year manager John Farrell.

Which streak will survive: The Rays’ hot run or the Red Sox’s dominance of the season series? Fresh off a sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays to open the post-All-Star Game sprint, Tampa Bay has won 13 of its past 14 games and 20 of its past 24. Meanwhile, the Red Sox own a 9-3 record against the Rays this season, including winning three of the past four games between the AL East contenders.

Certainly, no division title was ever won in late July, but the next four days carry something more. Stars. Added interest. Possible high emotions. (Remember, benches cleared June 10 after Red Sox right-hander John Lackey beaned Matt Joyce during a 14-inning marathon.)

Tampa Bay will have some of its best on the mound for the occasion. Left-hander Matt Moore starts Monday in his first appearance since the All-Star Game. Left-hander David Price starts Wednesday. Right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, a winner of his last five decisions, starts Thursday. (Right-hander Roberto Hernandez, who’s 5-10, starts Tuesday.)

Meanwhile, Boston answers with right-hander Brandon Workman (Monday), left-hander Jon Lester (Tuesday), left-hander Felix Doubront (Wednesday) and Lackey (Thursday).

Early, some expected the Rays to be in this position, threatening for the AL East lead. The development has been slower than expected. Still, after a 14-18 start, they are 44-23 since May 8, the best mark in the majors in that span. They have reached this point because of improved pitching, sharper defense (shortstop Yunel Escobar has become a rising star) and a more potent offense that is now tied for fifth in the majors with 465 runs scored.

Survive Boston with a split or a series victory, and Tampa Bay has a chance to extend its run further. A 10-game road trip against American League East opponents, to begin the second half, started well with the sweep against Toronto. A three-game series against the New York Yankees follows the trek to Boston, and the Yankees are fading, now in fourth place in the division.

Justifiably, there was some question about whether the Rays’ run to end the first half was as impressive as the results showed. The Houston Astros, Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins failed to provide strong tests, and the question, “Is this winning streak a mirage?” was fair, though there was plenty to like from Tampa Bay’s play in the stretch.

Sweeping the Blue Jays suggests the Rays’ momentum has continued after the All-Star break. The Boston and New York trips will tell more about this team’s identity, its resolve, its ability to overcome adversity. No matter the outcome, the experience can only mean good things for the continued growth of a group that has the look of one that can reach the postseason.

The calendar says July, but the intrigue suggests something later. The hottest team in baseball prepares for an interesting test.

What’s Hot

Kelly Johnson and Wil Myers both had big offensive showings in the three-game sweep over the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre.

Johnson went 5 for 8 and Myers 5 for 9, with three home runs and five RBI between them. For the most part, Myers has been a consistent producer since his promotion in June, but Johnson’s recent uptick is a positive trend for him and the Rays. He only hit .116 with one home run and five RBI in June, but he has hit .375 with four home runs and seven RBI in July.

What’s Not

It’s hard to find areas to nitpick during the hot streak, but fewer late-inning twists would be easier on the Rays’ stomachs.

Toronto rallied for one run in the ninth last Saturday and two runs in the ninth Sunday, before losing 4-3 on both days. Closer Fernando Rodney did enough to earn his 23rd and 24th saves, which place him 11 behind the major league leader, the Baltimore Orioles’ Jim Johnson.

Quotes of the week

“I feel like I’ve taken a deep breath since I got done on the mound. It really is something that, the whole time, is hanging over my head: ‘I’m going to pitch in this game. I’m going to pitch in this game. I’m going to have a chance to make a difference.'”

— Left-hander Matt Moore, to MLB.com, after he threw a nine-pitch fifth inning last Tuesday in the American League’s 3-0 victory over the National League in the All-Star Game at Citi Field. The appearance was Moore’s first All-Star Game in only his second full major league season.

“That’s the game we had been losing earlier in the year. Now we’re winning that same game, and that’s why it looks so good.”

— Manager Joe Maddon, to reporters, after the Rays’ 4-3 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday at Rogers Centre. The win sealed a three-game sweep for Tampa Bay and the Rays’ 20th victory in their past 24 games.

“Big series, two very good teams, an AL East battle. It’s going to be some good games, a lot on the line.”

— Designated hitter Luke Scott, to reporters, after the Rays’ victory over the Blue Jays on Sunday. Tampa Bay is 3-0 to start a 10-game road trip against American League East teams.

Numbers game

8: Consecutive day games won by the Rays, after Sunday’s victory.

0: Hits for designated hitter Luke Scott against Toronto Blue Jays right-hander R.A. Dickey, before he smashed a 411-foot home run Sunday to right field that gave Tampa Bay a 3-1 lead.

15: Consecutive saves for closer Fernando Rodney without a blown save, after converting two chances during the series in Toronto.

Tweet of the week


Left-hander Matt Moore was deserving of an All-Star berth before he received word that he was chosen to replace Texas Rangers right-hander Yu Darvish on the American League roster.

But his quick work against Carlos Gonzalez, Yadier Molina and Troy Tulowitzki in the fifth inning was validation that he has grown into one of the game’s most promising young arms.

At 13-3 with a 3.44 ERA in 19 starts, Moore has positioned himself well for what should be an intriguing second half as the Rays try to stay near the top of the AL East. Aside from a three-game slide to start June, Moore has been Tampa Bay’s most consistent arm this season. The future looks bright.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford

or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.