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Five keys to Rays remaining a contender in second half

ST. PETERSBURG

Okay, so now where were we?

Oh, that's right, the Rays were rolling into the All-Star break taking three of four from the division-leading Red Sox and planting themselves firmly in the middle of the American League playoff race.

"We've put ourselves in position to where it's probably going to be talked about, and that's a good thing. You'd rather be talking about it than not," manager Kevin Cash said during Thursday's optional workout at Tropicana Field.

"Saying that, we have to continue to find ways just to win series. … We know we're a good team, and we're playing good baseball."

Cash said the first step for the Rays is to not look further ahead than the three-game series that opens tonight in Anaheim, Calif.

But that's why we're here, to look at what, and who, it will take for the Rays to make it to the playoffs for the first time since 2013, when they were under different management.

They go into play tonight 47-43, tied with the Yankees (technically a percentage point behind) for second place in the East, 3½ games behind the Red Sox, and holding the second wild-card spot, ahead of the Twins, Royals and five others (including the Angels) within five games.

RELATED: Colby Rasmus likely done for season.

Rough guess, it will take 88 or 89 wins to at least make the tournament. At their current pace, the Rays project to 84.6. So to get to 88, they have to win 41 of their remaining 72 games — improving from a .522 clip to .569.

That seems doable. So how do they get there?

And who will take them? Here are five players who are key to making it happen:

Brad Boxberger, reliever

As before his spring injury, Boxberger could be the biggest swing factor. If healthy and even close to 2014-15 form, he gives the Rays a back-of-the-bullpen weapon, the key bridge to closer Alex Colome and an appealing option on days when Colome is off, or off his game. Plus, the Rays can then use less-predictable Tommy Hunter and Jumbo Diaz in lesser-leverage situations. In four hitless, runless innings since coming off the DL, Boxberger has dazzled, the zip on his fastball notable. "He could have about as much impact as anybody on our club, I think," Cash said. "We've talked about the bullpen at times as being a little beat up and not being as consistent as we'd like, but what we've seen out of 'Box' … has been outstanding. It's kind of amazing to see how well he's throwing the ball given that 2016 was somewhat of a lost year due to injury."

Brad Miller, INF

The Rays rank among the AL's most prolific offenses — sixth with 428 runs, third with 133 homers — in part due to several players producing well above their careers norms, such as All-Star Corey Dickerson, Logan Morrison, Mallex Smith and Tim Beckham. It's reasonable to think that one or a few will regress. But it's also fair for the Rays to expect others who have not been overachieving to step up. One could be Evan Longoria, who is quietly hitting .259 with 12 homers and 53 RBIs but really hasn't been hot. Another is Wilson Ramos. But a bigger difference-maker could be Miller. After a first half lost to injuries and ineffectiveness, Miller will have the opportunity — between playing second and, with Colby Rasmus gone, being a DH — to show he is the player who seemed to break out last season with 30 homers, not the one with two before Sunday's dramatic shot to beat the Red Sox.

MORE BRAD MILLER: After rough half-season, Rays' Brad Miller has one of biggest moments.

Jake Odorizzi, starter

Rays starters have the AL's second-best ERA at 4.05 but overall haven't pitched as well as expected. Rookie Jake Faria has been one of their most consistent, but with just six starts, it's a fair question if his bubble will burst. All-Star Chris Archer has been good (7-5, 3.95) but not great, with a few flaws. The most steady, Alex Cobb, is in his first season back after Tommy John surgery and has never made it through a full year healthy. Second-year lefty Blake Snell has been a mess, his two starts since returning from a six-week exile to the minors not showing much improvement in results. That leaves Odorizzi, the No. 2 starter known previously for his consistency, as the biggest X-factor. It has been one thing or another as Odorizzi has battled through 16 starts, and if the 4.63 ERA isn't enough of a concern, the 20 homers in 83⅔ innings should be. And some advanced metrics suggest he's pitching even worse than that.

MORE JAKE ODORIZZI: His last start before the All-Star break didn't go so well.

Wilson Ramos, C

For all the bad injury issues the Rays have had, Ramos' apparent return to elite-level form, and several weeks early, is promising. He already has shown the power (three homers in nine games) and defensive work that made him an All-Star, and figures once he gets into the rhythm of playing five or so games a week, to boost his average (.242) and on-base percentage (.297). Adding Brad Boxberger, Ramos and slick-fielding shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria has provided a big boost, and by the end of August, the Rays figure to also have back centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier, lefty reliever Xavier Cedeno, starter Matt Andriese and potentially Matt Duffy.

MORE WILSON RAMOS: What he'll mean to the lineup.

Alex Cobb, starter

The way Cobb has been pitching (7-6, 3.75) is not a worry. The issue is whether he will keep pitching for them. A pending free agent who figured to be traded by July 31, Cobb has been too big a part of their success to deal now. These Rays, though keeping the perspective that they are only four games over .500, should be looking to further add, assuming nothing changes dramatically the next couple of weeks, not deal away key pieces. And general manager Erik Neander sure made it sound like that will be what they plan to work toward. "You cherish these opportunities and you don't take them for granted," he said Thursday. "It's so hard to be competitive in this league. … We want to build off what's been a fairly successful first half and enhance our chances to be competitive as much as we can. There's certainly some excitement for us to look around at the position the team is in, but there is the potential to be a lot better to further improve our record. We want to do everything possible to take advantage of the momentum while also being responsible to the organization in a big-picture sense."

MORE ALEX COBB: He's proving too valuable to trade if the Rays are serious about the playoffs.

Tonight

at Angels, 10:07, Anaheim, Calif. TV/radio: Fox Sports Sun; 620-AM

Five keys to Rays remaining a contender in second half 07/13/17 [Last modified: Friday, July 14, 2017 12:14am]
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