Rays brimming with confidence heading into All-Star break

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Near the end of a long, rewarding homestand, Jose Lobaton and Jose Molina considered what could come ahead. The Tampa Bay Rays had lived a remarkable run — they won 10 of 11 games, 14 of 16 and 17 of 21 after a 5-0 victory over the Houston Astros on Sunday at Tropicana Field — and the catchers wondered if their momentum could continue after the All-Star break.

Lobaton asked Molina about the second half. Molina, as Lobaton recalls the conversation, offered advice that the Rays would be wise to follow: “Just keep going.”

“I don’t think we think too much about that,” Lobaton said of his team’s roll. “We just go every game, it’s a different day. Whatever happens, happens.”

In the coming days, Rays players will enjoy a mental and physical break before they begin an intriguing 10-game road trip against American League East teams July 19. But lately, what has happened could be recalled as the key charge that lifted them amongst the AL’s best if they advance to the postseason.

Sunday’s game followed a script that has been replayed plenty in July: They pounded an overmatched opponent. Tampa Bay finished this 14-game, pre-All-Star-break run against teams with losing records 12-2.

There are two ways to study that development: Either (A) make light of whom the Rays played, a fair argument (the Astros, Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox are the three worst teams in the AL) or (B) consider that good squads, elite ones, throttle the dregs matched against them.

There is truth in both perspectives, but the facts are these: The Rays are 55-41 and a major-league-best 41-23 since May 8, after starting 14-18. Players talk about a growing energy, a concept that is hard to both measure and confirm.

However, an eye test has value too. Tampa Bay looks like a group rising.

“You have to play teams that are not playing up to their potential sometimes, (and) you’ve got to make sure you put hay in the barn at that point,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “We were able to do that.”

They were, and in the process, the Rays produced some lofty figures. The 55 first-half victories tie a club record set in 2008 (the 96 games played before the All-Star break this year are a franchise record). They have scored 449 runs, the second-most in club history before the All-Star break (they had 476 in 2009).

Of course, for all their recent gains, there are unknowns to be learned.

Evan Longoria has labored at the plate, hitting .139 with 11 strikeouts in games from July 5-14. Will David Price continue his post-DL efficiency, or will he live a slide similar to what he experienced before he strained his left triceps on May 15?

Will Kelly Johnson, hitting .180 in his last 20 games played before the All-Star break, return to his May form, when he hit .330 with seven home runs and 26 RBI? Will Ben Zobrist, hitting .248 in his last 28 games played before the All-Star break, improve his consistency?

“I’m not concerned,” Maddon said. “The guys that are struggling a bit, I know they’re going to come back. I know Longo is going to be hitting the ball well. I know Zobrist is also. I’m not worried about guys like that at all. … Just to see some guys get back on track would be very nice.”

That is part of the intrigue to come after the All-Star break. The Toronto Blue Jays have failed to meet their preseason hype, and the injury-riddled New York Yankees appear to be fading.

But the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles both figure to be formidable tests. Tampa Bay will receive a glimpse of the sprint to come when they open the second half against the Blue Jays (three games), Red Sox (four) and Yankees (three) on the road.

“You want to play every day when you are winning games,” Rays centerfielder Desmond Jennings said. “But it’s a good time for us to take a few days off, rest up and come out with some energy in the second half.”

Said Rays right-hander Chris Archer: “Everybody’s going to come back re-energized or carrying over the energy from this series, this homestand.”

Whether they do so will be learned in time.

The Rays would be smart to keep going.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford

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