ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — You might expect a team that had just swept three of four series and won five straight to be bouncing off the clubhouse ceiling.
You might think the players inside would be giddy over having steamrolled the pitching staff of the Los Angeles Angels in four games and closing the gap on the first-place New York Yankees to four in the AL East.
But the general mood of the Tampa Bay Rays is remarkably calm these days.
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Sure, the team still has its fun with postgame dance party antics that follow victories. And there have been the usual themed road trips orchestrated by manager Joe Maddon, the most recent of which featured the Rays going to Anaheim as an offensive juggernaut.
Yet here’s the biggest theme to emerge this season for Maddon’s guys: They manage to keep their emotions in check, not getting too low when they lose or going sky-high when they win.
And they’re gaining ground, in part, by staying grounded.
That even-keeled attitude was certainly put to a major test last Wednesday when the Rays found themselves on the wrong end of yet another perfect game, this one courtesy of one of the game’s best pitchers in Seattle ace Felix Hernandez.
Worse yet, they’d booted a chance to beat the Mariners the night before, giving up a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the ninth to lose 3-2 and watch a seven-game win streak screech to an end.
Instead of flying out of town to Southern California feeling glum or bummed, they immediately put the pair of losses behind them and started a new winning streak — and one of record proportions, no less — against L.A.
Now, following their 5-1 home victory Monday night against Kansas City, the Rays have improved to a season-best 14 games over .500 at 68-54. They are not only closing in on the Yankees (72-50) following New York’s 9-6 loss to the White Sox on Monday, but they also pulled two games ahead of Baltimore (66-56) in the wild-card race.
Another indication of how they seem to routinely shake off adversity: According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Tampa Bay has tied the record for the longest winning streak immediately after suffering a perfect game, matching the 1904 Philadelphia Athletics, who won five straight after none other than Cy Young hurled his perfect game in May 1904.
They’ll have a chance to break that mark Tuesday night, when 16-4 David Price, making a serious bid for the AL Cy Young Award, goes against Kansas City’s Luke Hochevar (7-11, 5.24) at 7 p.m.
Of course, win or lose, you can count on the Rays taking it in stride, as they’ve done throughout their rollercoaster ride of 2012 and seasons past. Being balanced remains the name of the game for the Rays, a tone that has been set by Maddon and embraced by the players.
“That’s what you’ve got to do here,” Maddon said. “The length of the season, the way this thing goes back and forth — your good and your bad streaks — you have to try to find a way to approach it a more even-keeled manner. I think our guys have learned that over the last several years.
“Last September’s an example, I remember losing that double-header in New York, and that looked pretty much like the death knell right there. And it wasn’t. As long as you have a pulse, and as long as this thing mathematically still says you can, and you believe you can, (you don’t give up). I think our guys get it. And I like the idea that we don’t get too excited over the good stuff.”
Players throughout the clubhouse echoed the business-as-usual sentiment Monday.
“Absolutely, everybody knows it’s a long season and we still have a long way to go, and anything can happen in the month of September,” right fielder Matt Joyce said. “So you try not to get too down when you have a perfect game pitched against you. You just try to keep the mindset that you’re going to try to win on a nightly basis.”
Leaving Seattle after enduring their third perfect game in four seasons wasn’t the downer people might have expected.
“We were fine,” outfielder Sam Fuld said. “In some weird way, maybe getting a perfect game thrown against us helped us. If we’d have just lost the game 1-0 in an ordinary fashion, then we’d be kind of upset. But when it’s a perfect game, I think most of us, especially the guys who experienced a perfect game for the first time, you can appreciate the significance of it. Yeah, it stinks to lose, but it was one of those games that you’ll always remember.”
But as far as letting it get to them, it was instantly forgotten. The Rays maintained their equilibrium and re-focused against the Angels, setting a team record with 37 runs in a series, scoring at least four runs in one inning in each of the games and looking like a completely different offensive unit than the one that has struggled so much.
Much of that appears due to Evan Longoria, who returned to the lineup two weeks ago. His mere presence clearly has had a calming affect on the team, but it has also forced opposing pitchers to change their approach with the rest of the lineup, giving others in the batting order better pitches to hit.
The Rays have now won 12 of 14 with Longoria back, while outscoring their opponents 85-35, averaging 6.7 runs per game and enjoying nine double-digit hit totals. In the 10 games prior to his return from three-month absence with a torn hamstring, they averaged 2.5 runs per game and had only two double-digit hit games.
Fuld’s impact shouldn’t be underestimated, either. His energy and hot bat since returning from wrist surgery last month and phenomenal defense has given the Rays a consistent lift coming off the bench and in spot starts.
Monday night’s game was a perfect example. Fuld contributed a pair of great catches in right, one a dive on a sinking liner and the other a running grab at the wall — and nearly made another sensational diving catch, still managing to keep the ball in front of him. And he added a double and single to raise his batting average to .320 (16 for 50).
“Sam does everything right,” Maddon said.
Meanwhile, left fielder Desmond Jennings continues to provide a spark at the top of the lineup after struggling in that role earlier in the season. He’s hitting .317 in his past 10 games, including a double and triple Monday night. And even catcher Jose Molina has added some unexpected offense, in the midst of a nine-game hitting streak with a .354 batting average in that span (along with a homer and his third stolen base of the season).
But Molina was less interested in talking about his success at the plate than the team’s surge.
“I don’t care about that,” he said. “I care about the pitching staff that’s doing great, and they’ve been amazing on this road trip. And they’re going to continue to do that.”
As of now, the Rays staff leads the AL in ERA (3.31), strikeouts (1,008) and opponent’s batting average (.234). And only once in the past 25 years has a pitching staff led the AL in all three categories: the 1999 Red Sox.
This year’s Rays team seem to prove the old adage: The whole is greater than the sum of all its parts. (With beleaguered and contentious Boston, on the other hand, the sum of its parts is a hole.)
But more than anything, the Rays continue to thrive by keeping the highs in perspective and not letting the lows rattle them.
“We have a very good leader (in Maddon) — and he never gets rattled,” Price said. “He comes to this field every day with the same mindset. He doesn’t come in a bad mood if we haven’t been playing good baseball. He comes with the same attitude every day. And I think that rubs off on the team.”
LUKE UP, SEAN DOWN: As expected, DH/first baseman Luke Scott was activated from the disabled list Tuesday after a month out with a strained oblique. Utility infielder Sean Rodriguez was optioned to Durham to make room, in part because Rodriguez has minor league options remaining.
Expect to see him back, however, on Sept. 1 when rosters expand. Rodriguez has struggled unexpectedly this season at .215, but he’s going down to Durham on a hot streak, hitting .308 in his last 10 games and with a four-game hitting steak (6 for 16, .375).