The Tampa Bay Rays begin the second half on the road against the Minnesota Twins.
Kevin Kiermaier's torrid season is one reason the Rays have optimism they can catch up to the AL East leaders.
Brad Penner / USA TODAY Sports
By Andrew Astleford
There's optimism. That much can be said about the Tampa Bay Rays as they begin the season's second half. Unlike the dog days of late May and early June, when they were 24-42 and looked prepared to fade into a non-factor as the summer grew warmer, there remains a glimmer of hope that they can climb to the top of the American League East standings.
It won't be easy. It won't happen quickly. History suggests it likely won't happen at all.
But there's optimism. That much can be said now. Optimism can be a powerful currency. At this point, it's something the Rays will take when they begin a three-game series Friday against the Minnesota Twins at Target Field.
It's simple but true: "Maybe" beats "no way" any day. The Rays, even with a 9 1/2-game deficit in the division, force you to say, "Maybe they can pull this off after all." Many throughout their clubhouse carry hope after a 13-5 finish to the first half.
Expect the same themes that came with the first half's close to continue. David Price Watch 2014 remains a fascination. There will be curiosity about infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist's future as well. Outfielder Kevin Kiermaier will continue to excite. Right-hander Jeremy Hellickson's progress will be worth following. So will the health of outfielder Wil Myers.
Many things about Tampa Bay's first half were strange. It's surreal to sit back and consider the bright feelings that came out of spring training: The contender talk, the "Eat Last" motto, the assumptions that the Rays would reach the postseason for the fifth time in seven years. All of it seemed justified.
Then baseball happened. Among the developments: Key rotation injuries to left-hander Matt Moore and right-hander Alex Cobb, a right wrist injury to Myers, the struggling offense, closer Grant Balfour's implosions and demotion, the 1-14 slide from May 26-June 10, the three consecutive shutout losses from June 8-10.
The Rays can make all of that disappointment part of a historic comeback narrative. They can produce a rally to remember in the months ahead. Few would forget it anytime soon around here.
That's baseball as well. Until the math says otherwise, until all hope is gone, belief among those who can shape the outcome is necessary.
Here's a look at the upcoming Rays-Twins series ...
SCHEDULE AND PROBABLE PITCHERS
July 18 (Sun Sports -- pregame coverage begins at 7:30 p.m.) Alex Cobb (4-6, 4.14 ERA) vs. Kyle Gibson (8-7, 3.92 ERA)
July 19 (Sun Sports -- pregame coverage begins at 6:30 p.m.) David Price (9-7, 3.23 ERA) vs. Kevin Correia (5-11, 4.61 ERA)
July 20 (Sun Sports -- pregame coverage begins at 1:30 p.m.) Chris Archer (5-5, 3.41 ERA) vs. Phil Hughes (10-5, 3.92 ERA)
Kevin Kiermaier (Rays): He hit .500 (5 for 10) with three RBI in the final three games before the All-Star break. He hit safely in six of the final eight games before the break, including going 4 for 4 with four RBI in a loss to the Kansas City Royals on July 9. He has hit .310 with eight home runs and 24 RBI this season.
Eduardo Escobar (Twins): He hit .538 (7 for 13) with one home run and three RBI in the final three games before the All-Star break. His best effort in the span came when he went 3 for 4 with two RBI in a victory over the Colorado Rockies on July 13. He has hit .271 with three home runs and 21 RBI this season.
Evan Longoria (Rays): He finished batting .091 (1 for 11) with two strikeouts in the final three games before the All-Star break. He has gone hitless in five games in July. He has hit .257 with 11 home runs and 44 RBI this season.
Kendrys Morales (Twins): He finished batting .214 (3 for 14) with three strikeouts in the final three games before the All-Star break. He closed the season's first half by going 1 for 6 with one strikeout in a victory over the Colorado Rockies on July 13. He has hit .229 with one home run and 18 RBI this season.
9 1/2: Deficit, in games, that the Rays face in the AL East when starting the season's second half Friday. The Baltimore Orioles lead the division at 52-42. Baseball Prospectus gives Tampa Bay a 4.9 percent chance of making the playoffs.
0: Players wearing a Rays uniform who saw action in the All-Star Game on Tuesday. Price was Tampa Bay's lone representative at the event, but since he pitched Sunday in a victory over the Toronto Blue Jays, he elected not to appear in the game. Former Rays closer Fernando Rodney, now with the Seattle Mariners, took Price's place on the AL All-Star team.
1: Times Cobb has lasted beyond five innings in his last four starts, a stretch that spans from June 23-July 9. He has lost five of his past eight decisions. He allowed five runs and 11 hits in his first two July starts.
"We're trending in the right direction. It's still a tough hill to climb, but I think you can say our guys are up for the challenge. There was no let-up getting to our All-Star break. We didn't mail anything in. We weren't eager to get out of here. We wanted to come out and play another good game. And then short-term goal met -- we won the series." -- Manager Joe Maddon, after the Rays' 3-0 victory over the Blue Jays on Sunday at Tropicana Field. The result clinched Tampa Bay's fourth series victory in its last five.
"Our pitchers are going to pitch better more than they're going to pitch worse. Our hitting is going to score enough runs to win more than not. So that wasn't happening early in the season. We knew that we were capable of it. It just wasn't happening. We knew it couldn't last forever." -- Infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist, after the Rays' victory Sunday. After going 13-16 in June, Tampa Bay is 8-4 in July.
"Both teams are swingin it today!! Felix is too good...i'm happy i'm off today!!! getting to be a fan is AWESOME!!! #ASG" -- Price, in a tweet, during the All-Star Game on Tuesday. Although he didn't play, he still took part in the festivities and observed the AL's 5-3 victory.