Rays find themselves during uncommon homestand

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – This homestand was a variety pack of emotion. There were strange clubhouse sights – A cockatoo? Penguins? – hot bats and a few heated words.
Perhaps it was fitting that some equilibrium was restored in the past six days at Tropicana Field, capped by the Tampa Bay Rays’ 3-0 victory over the New York Yankees on Wednesday. After all, the Rays’ first road trip was a bump-a-minute ride that shook a young squad enough that manager Joe Maddon noticed his dugout needed to be energized less than a month into the season.
He identified a problem. He reacted. That’s what quality managers do.
The DJ, the magician, the cockatoo, the penguins – yes, they’re different. It’s debatable whether these things matter or if they’re no better than a superstitious fan choosing never to wash his or her favorite jersey, despite stain and tatter earned over time. The unusual guests made fine Twitter fodder and talking points. (“Which pregame guest was your favorite?” became a predictable media question by Wednesday afternoon.)
But, certainly, the Rays’ elevated play against the Oakland Athletics in a sweep last weekend and in taking two of three against the Yankees the last three days was more to credit for their rise from a 5-10 start.
This much is clear: Maddon noticed something was wrong. Perhaps it was bad juju from a string of “curious” calls by umpires in Arlington, Texas, and Baltimore. Perhaps it was the way the Rays struggled to produce in key moments at the plate. Perhaps it was the odd start by ace left-hander David Price, who remains winless after five appearances on the mound.
Still, these Rays were different at home. The numbers tell it: A 5-1 homestand with 28 runs and 49 hits produced. The atmosphere tells it: positive reactions on the field and loud postgame beats in the clubhouse (Pitbull’s “Don’t Stop the Party” was popular). The words tell it: “That was a tough, tough road trip,” said right-hander Alex Cobb, who surrendered three hits in 8 1/3 innings Wednesday. “It was becoming not fun to be in the clubhouse. We definitely made up for that this homestand with the fun.”
True, but Tampa Bay’s offensive turnaround, in particular, was most noticeable. Consider: Through their first 12 games, the Rays scored 35 runs in 107 innings, while batting .205 with five home runs. Meanwhile, since April 16, Tampa Bay has 44 runs and 17 home runs.
“It was more of a normalcy about us,” Maddon said of the homestand. “More of a confident kind of a method or feel. In the beginning of the year, nobody was hitting, (there were) a lot of new guys. … Nothing was really working at that time. But again, we’ve been in this position before and gone to the playoffs.”
Baseball is a game of flow, of change and recovery and fighting through failure. Each team, at some point, faces what the Rays did at the start of this homestand. It was only 15 games into their eighth season under Maddon, but the Rays’ task looked sizable against the A’s and Yankees, two of the majors’ hottest teams upon their arrivals.
Many presumed the Rays to be an American League East favorite in a year when the division figures to be as competitive as ever. They stumbled at the start. But like potential contenders do, they showed an ability to address what bothered them. And no, this won’t be the last time this summer they’ll be asked to do such a thing.
“You can definitely say that guys are starting to hit and are more confident,” Rays infielder Sean Rodriguez said.
Moving forward, the Rays’ confidence will be put to the test. Thursday, they begin an 11-day, 10-game road trip against the Chicago White Sox, Kansas City Royals and Colorado Rockies. The Royals and Rockies, in particular, figure to be interesting tests. Both lead their respective divisions. In all, Rays’ opponents on the upcoming swing hold a combined 32-27 record.
Baseball is a mental game, an emotional exercise, and the Rays’ recovery during this homestand showed as much. Yes, we saw the DJ and the magician, the cockatoo and the penguins. We saw the odd and interesting, the surreal and strange.  
But we also saw something more important: An effective team that’s almost back to .500.
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.