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Gut-check time for Rays

ARLINGTON, Texas

The Rays weren't going to have it easy anyway. Their schedule was rugged, their inexperience an issue and their margin for error slight in their bid to make the playoffs for the first time in their 11 seasons. And then in the past week, they lost their best outfielder, Carl Crawford, for likely the rest of the regular season with a hand injury. They lost their most productive hitter and smooth-fielding third baseman, Evan Longoria, for at least two more weeks with a fractured right wrist. And they lost their most accomplished relief pitcher, Troy Percival, for 2-4 weeks with a right knee sprain. So, have they also lost hope? Skeptics (and Red Sox fans) say so, that there's no way the Rays can overcome these absences and keep winning, not in the heat of their first pennant race and in the cool of September in Boston and New York. The Rays say otherwise, that they've gotten this far with a team effort, that they have the depth to overcome the injuries and the determination to finish what they've started, and that they're not going to fade away. (Computers agree, with two statistics-based Web sites giving them a 90 percent or better chance of making the playoffs.) "We're not, because it's primarily the same group that's been doing it here all year," manager Joe Maddon said. "And we're not because the way we won all year is based primarily on pitching and defense. "But the primary reason, I think, is the close-knit group and the camaraderie that has been built over the course of the season. You talk about your own 26th man, that feeling that is derived from going through all this to this point and when you keep hearing that you can't do something, that kind of spurs you on even a little bit more. So I think our guys will feed off of all of that. "So for all those reasons, I believe — and I know our players believe — we can still do this regardless of the adversity." Of all the reasons why the Rays can or can't, here are five issues that will be key over the remaining six weeks of the regular season:

Schedule

Of the final 39 games, 22 are against teams that are also in contention to make the playoffs (Angels, Red Sox, Twins, White Sox, Yankees) and that have more experience than the Rays in doing so, and six others are against a Blue Jays team on the fringe. This week is going to be tough: three home games starting tonight against the Angels, who have the best record in the majors, and three in Chicago against the White Sox, who are tied with Minnesota for first in the AL Central. And September is going to be treacherous, with 12 games in a 15-game span against the Yankees (against whom they are 5-7) and Red Sox (6-6), followed by four against the Twins. By comparison, the Red Sox have six games with the Rays and Yankees, three with the White Sox and 10 with the Blue Jays.

Offense

The Rays have not been a very good offensive team most of the season, and they would seem to be worse with Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria out. In the 14-team American League, they rank (through games of Saturday) 10th in runs, 12th in hits and 13th in doubles. But all season they have found ways — creative ways, dramatic ways, no-way-they-did-that ways — to score enough runs. Nine times they've won on the final pitch, and six others they've scored the go-ahead run in their last at-bat and hung on. They've won five times when trailing after seven innings, twice when behind after eight. They're 8-4 in extra innings. Longoria, who led the team in homers and RBIs at the time, is expected back around Sept. 1. And as much as they would seem to miss Crawford, Eric Hinske, right, who will get most of his playing time, is having a better offensive season. There's also this: The Rays were averaging 4.55 runs through Aug. 9, when Crawford got hurt. In the first six games without Crawford and Longoria (albeit against weaker teams), they averaged 4.8. And they went 4-2.

Defense

The single biggest reason the Rays have been better this season is the simplest: They catch the ball better. The offseason priority to improve the defense — bringing in shortstop Jason Bartlett, shifting Akinori Iwamura from third base to second, promoting Evan Longoria — has taken them from the bottom of the league fielding statistics to near the top. That is where they may most feel the losses of Carl Crawford and Longoria. Manager Joe Maddon concedes the defense "is slightly less, maybe even significantly less" without them. Longoria had emerged as one of the best, if not the best, defensive third baseman in the league and made several game-saving plays. Crawford's speed and range allowed him to make catches and cut off balls, thus preventing runners from taking extra bases, which Eric Hinske cannot do.

Pitching

If the Rays are going to hang on, they're going to have to do so with pitching. They've ranked among the league best all season, and the impact is obvious. They have a strong starting rotation of five pitchers 26 and younger who shouldn't have issues with fatigue down the stretch, and they have had a remarkable and deep bullpen that has proved itself again and again. The Rays have the fewest blown saves in the majors, allowed the lowest batting average and have the fourth-best relief ERA (3.30). Getting by without Troy Percival, above, will be a challenge. Though they have other pitchers (primarily Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler) who they think can handle his job of getting the final three outs, it does alter their usual roles and weaken the depth of the group. This all matters because the Rays play so many close games. The difference between their average runs scored (4.56) and runs allowed (3.99) is just .57 — barely half a run. (Boston's margin is 1.02). The Rays have had 57 of their first 122 games decided by one or two runs and are 39-18.

Chemistry

The games have to be won on the field, but there has been a special feeling around the Rays, an inner confidence that allows them to pull off some of their improbable comebacks and has them convinced they'll keep doing so. It starts in the clubhouse, where manager Joe Maddon worked hard to create, and now talks a lot about, their chemistry, the intangible of having the players all committed to the team first and doing anything, and everything, to try to win each night. Which is yet another reason they don't feel all is lost with the injuries. "I really don't understand that concept," Maddon said. "You have to play with what you have, and I like what we have."

Gut-check time for Rays 08/17/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 18, 2008 5:28pm]

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