Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Halfway through, Rays are average

ST. PETERSBURG

Halfway home and the Tampa Bay Rays aren't half bad.

On the other hand, they aren't half good, either.

Eighty-one games in and the only thing extraordinary about the Rays is how ordinary they have been. They have proved they can come from behind, and they have proved they can fall from ahead. They can build large leads, and they can watch as those leads are whittled away. They can get on a little winning streak, and they can answer it with a little losing streak.

Forty-two steps forward.

Thirty-nine steps back.

And so it goes with a team that is running in place. Fourth place, by the way.

The Rays came back to win against the Tigers on Saturday night, and any time you can come from three runs down to beat Justin Verlander, it's a giggle. But can you trust it to last until tomorrow and beyond? Can this be the start of something?

Even with the win, it was only the Rays' eighth in their past 20 games. After a while, you wonder if this is what this team is, if it is doomed to climb up the mountain and perpetually slide back down.

Over the past few seasons, we have grown used to seeing excellence. But this team seems stuck. It has spent all of one day in first place this year, and from the looks of it, it didn't care very much for the experience.

Time and again, the Rays will remind you they are still within striking distance of the American League East lead. And time and again, they do not strike. To sum up the first half of the season, they are a team spinning its wheels and waiting for a winning streak to arrive.

In the yin and the yang of a baseball season, this is what average teams do. They tease you. They are occasionally awesome, and they are frequently awful, and every winning streak is paired with a losing streak. The Rays are not a terrible team, and they are not a terrific one.

They are middle of the road, and they are stuck in traffic. Still.

"At this point, I would say we've underachieved," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "We have our plans, our thoughts, set a little higher. We thought we'd be in a better position right now, there's no question.

"I'd like to believe we should be about 10 games over .500. That would taste a lot more familiar."

So why hasn't it happened? The hitting, at least until the past couple of weeks, has been better. The defense has been excellent.

Ah, but pitching, that familiar strength of the Rays, hasn't been up to standards. Not since 2007 have the Rays given up so many runs in the first half of a season.

Perhaps that was to be expected. David Price has had an injured arm, and Alex Cobb was hit by a line drive, and Jeremy Hellickson has struggled to hold leads, and Matt Moore has struggled to go deep enough into games, and if you remember, James Shields was traded for 12 days (so far) of Wil Myers. With the Rays, however, there are plenty of young arms, and yes, the expectations have been higher.

"We still haven't reached all of our potential," said Maddon. "Pitchingwise, I'd like to see it come up to another level that we're more accustomed to. Getting David back is the first step. Hopefully, getting Alex back after that would be great.

"The bullpen is starting to take a little better form, but it still isn't at that level we were accustomed to last year. From a pitching standpoint, I still think we have to pitch to a better level to achieve the playoffs."

Maddon is an optimist by nature and necessity. But he still envisions this team turning it around. He sees a real winning streak taking hold and the Rays clawing their way back into contention.

So far this year, the Rays have had two six-game winning streaks. Sadly, they didn't ride the momentum either time. After the first, the Rays went 4-6 in their next 10 games. After the second, they went 5-5.

The thing is, being barely over .500 won't run anyone down. The more teams you have to pass, the more you need a 12-game, a 13-game winning streak somewhere along the line.

"We haven't been as good as we know we're capable of," said designated hitter Luke Scott. "Have we underachieved? Yes. Are we doing what we're capable of doing? No, not yet. But that's why we play 162 games. We have some pieces of the puzzle that are just waiting to explode. When that happens, we'll take off."

Said leftfielder Matt Joyce: "You have to have a lot of things go right. You have to have big hits and big times. Maybe we have to have a little bit of that Rays magic where, in the late innings, you just believe you're going to win. You believe someone is going to come up with the big hit."

So far, however, the magic has more often been on the other set of bats. Rays opponents have come from behind 20 times to win this year, some of them more heart-wrenching than others. Consider this: The Rays have lost 24 games in the AL East, and 11 of those have been decided in the ninth inning or later.

"The leads we've given up late are the toughest part to overcome," Maddon said. "It's really hard mentally. It's not only about the win you don't win, it's about the complementary factors. It affects attitude and showing up with the right mental energy. The stuff that derived from getting those wins, those intangibles, evade you when you're losing games that you should pretty much win."

So is there any hope? Sure. The pitching can tighten up. Price and Cobb can save the day, twice. The hitting can bounce back. Evan Longoria can heal in a hurry. The bullpen can be better.

Oh, yeah. And the team can win a few in a row. Just a thought.

Comments
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