'Urgent' Rays kick-start homestand with signs of life in beating Orioles
JUN 17, 2014 12:32a ET
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- There came a time early in Joe Maddon's pregame media gathering Monday at Tropicana Field that served as a line of separation in this Tampa Bay Rays' season. Listen to the manager close enough these days, and it becomes clear that late-summer urgency has entered the Rays clubhouse a month or two early.
It's easy to understand why. Tampa Bay began play Monday with a 27-43 record, rightfully irrelevant when talk surfaces about midseason success stories and would-be contenders come late August and September.
It's almost laughable to the world outside the Rays clubhouse to consider them an October possibility at this point. But Sunday in Houston, the Rays clinched their third victory in four games, their best four-game stretch since winning four straight from May 22-25. The flat-line effort of the past two weeks had disappeared. Still, in a climb from dark depths that saw them fall to 18 games below .500 last Tuesday, Maddon as motivator was far from pleased.
He recognized the mirage. The Rays had more to give.
He wanted to see more, fast.
"We're a better ballclub than we've shown to this point -- there's no question," Maddon said before Monday's series opener against the Baltimore Orioles. "How do we get to that level? It's just going to take a lot of work. ... Ten-game homestand, I want to get a lot of work done now and try to get this thing back on track, because to wait until the All-Star break would be too late."
The Rays showed more life Monday in earning a 5-4 victory over the pesky Orioles, who were 5-0 against the Rays this season before Jerry Sands cracked a pinch-hit, two-run home run beyond left field off left-hander Brian Matusz in the eighth inning that became the difference.
The result kicked off a 10-game homestand that will serve as an X-ray to discover what's inside this team: Will the Rays show the desire to dig from a hole of their making? Or will they curl, fold and prepare to count down the hours until they meet for spring training once more?
"We can't wait until the All-Star break and then try to re-assess," Maddon said afterward. "We normally do the spring training (-like assessment) after the All-Star break. Now we're doing it pre. And again, it's not punitive. It's just to get the mental sharpness back, to get the guys focused and have them understand we need to start pushing it right now."
So far, the returns are good.
The Rays have won four of their past five games after losing 14 of their previous 15. They have scored 24 runs over their past five games, an outburst that followed them being shut out in three consecutive games. They have 17 extra-base hits over their past four games and 40 in their previous 12. In the 21 games before that, they had 39.
Baseball is a cyclical game, at least for teams with talent. The Rays have enjoyed better karma after the collapse of late May and early June. This should be expected. On paper, they appear too good to be lifeless for too long.
Still, the urgency from Maddon is interesting and revealing into how he hears the season's clock ticking louder toward Decision Day with each hour. His 50-50 goal after 100 games appears lost now. (They Rays would have to go 22-7 over their next 29.) But this nudge to play with more sharpness plays into his preference of demanding more when things go well -- or at least better -- and offering support when life becomes a tailspin. This is his way, tested and true.
"We've been playing pretty good ball," Sands said. "Like he said, there are some things that we can improve when we're going down the stretch late in the season -- it's really going to help us kind of go over the edge. Just kind of staying with those fundamental things that we need to concentrate on. We've got a good enough team and talent and people in here that we can do some things."
That should be the fascinating part about following this team in the next nine games and in the weeks to come before the All-Star break. The Rays, all along, have resembled a Lamborghini with a faulty engine. Everything on the outside, from the promising roster to the veteran bullpen, appeared sleek and smooth coming out of spring training.
But internal failures, from key rotation injuries to bad hitting "luck" and more, have led to the clunker of a campaign so far. Urgency can become a correction to the ills. Urgency can become a cure.
"I just thought we had a nice, crisp sharpness about us tonight," Maddon said.
It's the Rays' duty to answer their manager's call more often, to turn the forgettable of most of the season's first half into something palatable by the All-Star break.
The urgency is healthy. It can become a catalyst for a lost campaign to this point, the seconds becoming more urgent by the hour.