As Rays deal with rotation injuries, stopgaps transitioning into replacements

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — OK, now the rotation injuries have become ridiculous.

Remember when the Tampa Bay Rays appeared to dodge two landmines in March, after Alex Cobb was diagnosed with right forearm tendinitis and Drew Smyly with left shoulder tendinitis?

There was no ducking from the booms of the past week, when Cobb announced his intention to have Tommy John surgery and knowledge surfaced that Smyly could face season-ending surgery with a labrum tear.

What began as a spring of revolution has become the summer of scars.

Check out these dizzying numbers: The Rays’ rotation has fielded an American League-high eight different starting pitchers, four different rookies, and five starters have been sent to the disabled list a total of six times. Cobb and left-hander Matt Moore have been absent all season. Smyly has three starts. Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi have risen from the No. 4 and No. 5 starters to be the top two options. Names such as Matt Andriese, Erasmo Ramirez and Steve Geltz all have been asked to take the mound in the first inning at various times in this juggling act.

When it comes to the Rays’ rotation, we’re beyond Plan B, C and D.

Try W, X or Y.

Remarkably, USS Rays has stayed afloat within these choppy waters, despite obvious wonder about how long this trend can last. Efficient pitching, no matter the arms involved, can keep Tampa Bay moving in the right direction.

Rays vs. Rangers

"How they go, we go," Rays manager Kevin Cash said Sunday at Tropicana Field, after his team’s 2-1 loss to the Texas Rangers. "They’ve been outstanding. It has been a tremendous effort from the guys that were initially slated to be here and then also from the guys that we’ve called upon from the minor leagues. Everybody has pitched in, per se, and done really well. And we know that’s what it’s going to take throughout the course of the year to get to where we want to get."

Quick, if you were to learn on Opening Day that Tampa Bay would be without Cobb and Smyly for most of the season, would you expect a winning record through 32 games?

How does 17-15 sound?

That mark translates to second place in the AL East, which sounds a whole lot better than where the underachieving Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles find themselves. The victories earned in the most recent series against the Rangers on Friday and Saturday offered a model for how the Rays can make life work without Cobb and Smyly.

Receive solid starts.

Bet on the bullpen.

Hit well.

On the starting pitching and the bullpen: The Rays have allowed fewer than 10 hits in a team-record 19 consecutive games. They have surrendered five runs or fewer in 20 consecutive contests. Entering Sunday, they had posted a 2.52 ERA in the previous 19 games to lower their ERA total from a 4.64 to a season-low 3.41. They allowed four runs and 14 hits in the two wins over Texas.

On the hitting: The Rays pounded 15 runs and 19 hits in routing the Rangers. Tampa Bay would take seven or eight runs each day as fast as Jameis Winston would accept a crab legs dinner. Of course, the Rays can’t count on that much offense each day. But consistent production that gives them a chance should be the goal.

The good news is that Odorizzi and Archer have been up to the challenge of anchoring the Rays’ rotation. Both have been strong, and Tampa Bay will need them to stay healthy to provide stability despite the shifting ground below everyone.

Odorizzi didn’t appear to be completely over his recent bout with the flu, but he still gave the Rays valuable innings Sunday. He placed them in a position to win by allowing one run, seven hits and striking out seven in 6 2/3 innings. It was the kind of effort that’s required for Tampa Bay to remain a factor in the division race.

"I thought he did phenomenal," Rays reliever Kevin Jepsen said of Odorizzi. "He has been pitching great all year for us. … He throws strikes. He battles."

Certainly, the Rays would like to have Cobb and Smyly battling as part of their rotation as well. But the current situation provides a chance for Archer and Odorizzi to grow in encouraging ways. The same goes for Andriese and Nathan Karns, Alex Colome and bullpen faces who are used in high-leverage scenarios. There are multiple benefits to go around.

Moments like this offer opportunities that can change careers. We’ve seen the situation play out in different areas of sports, from backup quarterbacks proving themselves as worthy of starting jobs to interim coaches catching their bosses’ attention when given the chance to lead. Reputations can evolve if chances are exploited.

"We’ve always talked about the next guy stepping up, and now, with the unfortunate situations we have going on here, it’s more true than ever," Odorizzi said. "So I feel like the guys that are coming up now, they’ve been here since the start of the season. So it’s not like we’re bringing up new guys who haven’t had this experience, and so at the beginning of the year when they got that experience, it was really a good thing. Now they know what to expect when they come up here."

So as the Rays’ disabled list grows, so does the intrigue. What looked like pitching injuries worthy of a "Whew!" in March have become another reason to ask, "What the heck is next?" and "How will Tampa Bay adjust?"

The Rays, to this point, have survived without Cobb and Smyly in this young season. Sure, the best-laid plans for the rotation have been crumpled and tossed into a wastebasket, the ink on that original draft long faded.

But the revised version of reality may prove more desirable and rewarding than first thought.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.