ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Just in case the four-day All-Star break isn’t enough to jar the Tampa Bay Rays from the worst slump in their history, they will have a few lineup tweaks as the return Friday for a three-game series against the Baltimore Orioles at Tropicana Field.
"I’m not going to lie. This All-Star break has been tough," said Rays manager Kevin Cash, eager from a distraction after losing 22 of 25 games entering the break.
"You look at the standings, you read how far back we are. We’ve got a long road and we’re going to need to play better baseball. I think that starts by putting a goal of winning as many series up front coming out of the break as possible."
As early as Friday’s game, the Rays are expected to get back Gold Glove center fielder Kevin Kiermaier, a catalyst in the field and on the bases, where he had six steals and 15 extra-base hits before missing 45 games with a fractured hand.
The Rays also optioned backup catcher Hank Conger, hitting just .194 with 10 RBIs in 124 at-bats, to Triple-A Durham, with Luke Maile taking his place as Curt Casali’s backup. Maile, 25, had 35 at-bats last season and hit just .171, but he should be an upgrade defensively.
And in one more move, the Rays signed reliever Kevin Jepsen, who was released by the Minnesota Twins, the same team that acquired Jepsen from the Rays at the trade deadline last year.
Jepsen was sharp last season with a 2.33 ERA but struggled in Minnesota this year with a 6.16 ERA. Still, he’s seen as more dependable than the Rays’ current options. They’ll likely send down two relievers to make room for Jepsen and Kiermaier on Friday.
The Orioles (51-36), leading the American League East, are looking for a different kind of upgrade. They could pursue a key addition in the next two weeks before the trade deadline, most likely to bolster their starting rotation with a replacement for struggling Ubaldo Jimenez.
"Help is right here in this group. We are not coveting other people’s players," Orioles manager Buck Showalter told reporters about not needing a trade at the deadline. "Every answer we need to have is in here."
Baltimore won four of five going into the All-Star break, with two wins from Chris Tillman, who is 12-2 and will start Saturday against the Rays. Kevin Gausman is 1-6, however, and Yovani Gallardo (3-1), Friday’s starter, hasn’t been reliable, either.
The Orioles are where they are in part because of a major-league-best 137 home runs — a ridiculous 28 from Mark Trumbo, another 22 from Chris Davis and 19 from Manny Machado. It’s enough to have them 15 games above .500 at the break, but they might need more pitching if they want to be more than a division winner.