Rays Tales: How much difference can one run make? For Rays, a lot

Walking off as the Tigers celebrated a one-run win Wednesday was no fun for Daniel Robertson and the rest of the Rays. [Getty Images]
Walking off as the Tigers celebrated a one-run win Wednesday was no fun for Daniel Robertson and the rest of the Rays. [Getty Images]
Published May 5

The Rays have been talking for a long time about doing better in close games.

"When I addressed the club in spring training, that's what I talked about,'' manager Kevin Cash said. "Bottom line is that over the last three years we've played more high-leverage tight ballgames than any team in the American League. That's one pitch, one at-bat or one play on the field that can dictate a game.''

At some point they need to do something about it.

Close games, specifically one-run games, have been a major cause for concern.

First, because the Rays have played a lot of them, a major-league leading 15 in their first 30 games (through Friday).

And second, because they have been losing a lot of them, a majors-most 10.

That .333 winning percentage is bad.

More damning, it's keeping them from better things, as they otherwise were 9-6, .600. The difference of .267 percentage points is the largest such gap in the AL. (Plus, for what it's worth, six of those one-run losses are to the baseball-best Red Sox.)

This isn't anything new. As Cash alluded to, it's been an issue during his entire three-plus season tenure.

In that span, they've played the third most one-run games in the AL, 156, and have the lowest winning percentage, .417. (In other games, they are 177-183, .492.)

Plus this is the big leagues, so there shouldn't be any "participation trophy' mentality of thinking being close means you're almost good enough.

So, what can they do?

Well …

* Play better. Sometimes a one-run loss can be considered a good thing, like when you come from further back and fall just short. But more often it's the result of a mistake – a poorly executed pitch that gets hit, a somewhat routine play that doesn't get made, a runner who doesn't get advanced or knocked in.

"Seeing that we've played a lot of one-run games and seeing our record in them, to me it should be a little light that goes off in everybody's head that says, "Okay, I really need to focus on my game and any little detail that could help us win,' '' first baseman Brad Miller said. "You hit just a little bit better. You field just a little bit better. You pitch just a little bit better. And maybe one of those improvements will help you win that particular game.''

* Manage better. Cash also has to keep improving, both in putting the right  players in the right positions to succeed and making decisions. "You have to be prepared to make some decisions that at the time are not always agreed with,'' he said. "I'm constantly trying to learn and improve.''

He shared candidly how much he wrestled Wednesday with taking out a sharp Blake Snell with two outs in the seventh and a one-run lead so Chaz Roe would face righty James McCann. Instead he stuck with Snell, who allowed a tying homer. Then kicked himself when the Rays ended up with a one-run loss.

"Our margin for error is so small, so it's both (Cash and players),'' starter Chris Archer said. "It's making the right moves at the right time. The right play. The right pitch. Everything. We have to take the extra base, not make a baserunning mistake. Execute a pitch at the right time. We have to do it all. We have to.''

* Get used to it. Cash often says the Rays are built to play a lot of close games, which isn't a slam on their offense as much as a nod to their focus on pitching and confidence to play mistake-free defense. Given their proclivity to not score much, it seems likely to continue. If nothing else, veteran Denard Span said, "experience should be the best teacher.''

Particularly good experience.

"As much as anything, you learn to win those games and there's a confidence that comes with starting to win those games,'' said coach Rocco Baldelli, noting they've won five of their last 10 one-run games.

"Good teams find a way. We can talk about luck, that this happens and that happens, you can talk about a lot of different things. The good teams seemingly find a way to win more of those games than they lose.

"We have the kind of group that is going to play a lot of games like that. I think we are getting to the point – I know it's early in the season – where we are going to win those games. We're going to play a ton of those games, and it's going to make the season interesting if nothing else.''

* Separate things. One way to avoid losing one-run games is to stop playing them. How? One, by scoring more earlier to put teams away. The Rays are only 8-9 when scoring first, and plated only 12 runs in each of the first two innings. Two, by having starters and middle relievers not let teams back into games, forcing closer Alex Colome and other short relievers into unexpected duty.

Short stops

Road blues:  As if having to make three stops on each of their first four trips wasn't challenging enough, consider this upcoming itinerary: The Rays leave Thursday for an 11-games-in-10-days trip to Baltimore, Kansas City and Anaheim, return early morning May 21 then head west again on May 27 for a nine-games-in-10-days trip to Oakland, Seattle and –  of even less logic – Washington.

Short-armed: So from all that starting pitching depth the Rays had at the start of spring training, they've lost to injury Jose De Leon and Brent Honeywell for the season, Yonny Chirinos and Nathan Eovaldi for extended periods, plus traded Jake Odorizzi. The current Triple-A rotation has prospects Anthony Banda and Jose Mujica, and journeymen Ryan Weber, Vidal Nuno, Forrest Snow.

Rays rumblings

Picking up failed Mets starter Matt Harvey and giving him a chance to resurrect his career would seem like a very Rays thing to do, but don't expect it. … ESPN's Keith Law's first mock draft has the Rays using the No. 16 pick June 4 on C/3B Noah Naylor, a Canadian high schooler. … Need a summer job? The Rays had an ad in last Sunday's Times seeking several Port Charlotte-based minor-league coaches who can speak fluent Spanish and travel; contact [email protected]. (Best guess, it was to satisfy some type of posting requirement.) … Denard Span's 15.8-second inside-the-park sprint was the fastest home run trot in the majors in April , while Carlos Gomez's walkoff performance theater was fifth slowest at 28.85. … LHP Colin Poche had a pretty easy transition when acquired in trade from Arizona last week, tweeting a 26-second video of moving down the hall as new Double-A Montgomery team was playing at his former Jackson, Tenn., team. …  For all those who kept tweeting about wanting to see Jose Bautista playing at the Trop this season – he'll be there Tuesday, with the Braves. … In addition to managing the umpires' room, former longtime bullpen catcher Scott Cursi is working on learning the scouting business. … The Marlins' Monday crowd of 5,415 was their fourth this season under 6,000. … Commissioner Rob Manfred said again Friday in Mexico that MLB "would like to get to 32 teams," which means they are eyeing the top available markets for expansion. … Given a month to evaluate several D-backs prospects as candidates to be the players to be named in the Steven Souza Jr. trade, the Rays gave a lot of credit to their pro scouting staff for identifying Poche and RHP Sam McWilliams.

Close is not good enough
Since Kevin Cash took over as manager in 2015, the Rays have played the third most one-run games in the AL and have the worst record:
Team       No.   W-L    Pct.
Angels     147   85-62  .578
Rangers    136   77-59  .566
Royals     140   76-64  .543
Mariners   168   90-78  .536
Indians    129   68-61  .527
Yankees    135   71-64  .526
Red Sox    136   71-65  .522
Tigers     142   74-68  .521
Orioles    136   69-67  .507
Astros     144   72-72  .500
White Sox  168   77-91  .458
Athletics  155   70-85  .452
Blue Jays  149   65-84  .436
Twins      125   53-72  .424
RAYS       156   65-91  .417
(Through Friday)

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