ST. PETERSBURG — Sticking with our theme of the week, the Rays had some hard knocks — see what we did there? — of their own Thursday afternoon, pounding out an 8-1 victory to complete an impressive three-game sweep of the supposedly fierce Tigers.
The drama-free win left them 9-8 as they completed the first one-tenth of their schedule and left us assessing what we've seen to this point:
• Steven Souza Jr. probably won't stay on his current pace to hit .349 with 30 homers, 150 RBIs and a 1.041 OPS, but boy, he sure looks like a different player — the dynamic player the Rays thought they were getting in sending talented Trea Turner and Joe Ross to Washington to land a replacement for outfielder Wil Myers. "We all know he's got all the tools in the world, and I think we're seeing him kind of put it together a little bit," manager Kevin Cash said. Souza said basically that the key is he hasn't been pressing. "Just trying to play free," he said. "I know I can sound like a broken record, but I can really overthink things and put a lot of pressure on myself, and through the years, I think that's what I've done."
• The vaunted starting pitching has been only okay. Including Erasmo Ramirez's five solid innings Thursday filling in for injured Jake Odorizzi, the starters have a solid 3.46 ERA that ranks in the top five in the American League but only six quality starts (six or more innings, three or fewer runs). Going deeper in games is imperative. So will be getting more out of Alex Cobb, scheduled to make his fourth start tonight still battling his way back to pre-Tommy John surgery form, specifically in regaining command of his killer changeup that generates easier outs.
• The Rays are either A) a really good team at Tropicana Field, B) a really miserable team on the road, or, most likely, C) somewhere between the extremely small sample-size results. Still, the difference has been stark. They are 8-2 under the tilted roof and averaging 5.4 runs per game versus 1-6 elsewhere averaging 3.7. More telling, they have three errors total and a 1.91 bullpen ERA at home, six and —yikes! — 6.85 away.
• They've shown some fight. Six of their nine wins are come-from-behind, with two walkoffs, including Wednesday when, Elias Sports says, they won for the first time in 103 games when trailing in the ninth or later, going back to October 2015. "The makeup and chemistry is showing signs of being a real strength," general manager Erik Neander said. "There is a chip, an edge, a selflessness, a greater purpose behind how these guys compete together. … It's an easy group to root for."
• The bullpen bridge to closer Alex Colome is going to be an adventure. When the Rays can use it how they want — with Jumbo Diaz, Tommy Hunter and either lefty Xavier Cedeno (assuming he gets straightened out) and pseudo-lefty Danny Farquhar — they can be effective. But if they have to use those relievers based on need or rest, it can get ugly in a hurry, as we've already seen.
• The offense has clicked. Though using Souza and Corey Dickerson and unconventional leadoff hitters and platooning at three spots, Cash has built lineups that allow No. 2-hitting Kevin Kiermaier to be a spark and get Evan Longoria and the Nos. 4 and 5 hitters to the plate with repeated opportunities, and with speed at the bottom to turn it over. "I like the way it's flowed," Cash said. Grabbing early leads has helped. The Rays lead the majors with 44 runs in innings 1-3 while allowing only 26. Their majors-most 175 strikeouts are a concern, however, and they've been vulnerable to lefties.
• Matt Duffy can't get healthy quick enough. Tim Beckham hasn't been horrible filling in at shortstop, but his occasional defensive lapses and offensive inconsistencies show up too often. The Rays aren't good enough overall to overcome more than a mistake or two, and that showed up too often in New York and Boston in the last road trip. (Kind of like how the Rays must have felt playing the amazingly sloppy Tigers this week.) Mid May seems the latest best guess for Duffy's return.
• Depth has been tested. Speedy outfielder Mallex Smith was an impressive spark plug, but when he got hurt and Colby Rasmus still wasn't ready — with only two 40-man-roster position players in the minors — the Rays had to turn to Shane Peterson, who is out of options and could be lost on waivers when it's time to send him down. Similarly, they have limited pitching alternatives with starter Jose De Leon and reliever Jaime Schultz on the minor-league disabled list.
• Outfielder Dickerson, like Souza, is blossoming into the complete player the Rays expected in the deal with Colorado. Two keys for Dickerson have been using the whole field and hitting well versus lefties, 7-for-16. Plus, after shedding 25 pounds, he has been a much-improved defender, which will come into play more when Rasmus returns (maybe next week in Toronto) and gets some DH days.
• The Rays have 145 games to play, so the one thing we know for sure is that a lot of what we've seen won't be the same. In other words, expect more hard knocks.
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @ TBTimes_Rays.