ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays' 8-2 Saturday win over the American League-best Rangers was the product, as most are, of several elements:
• The first home run of Luke Maile's career, and the 28th of Evan Longoria's increasingly impressive season.
• Some actual, real live situational hitting.
• A bases-clearing double by Brad Miller to push it from a tense 4-1 affair to a comfortable six-run margin.
• An impressive replay-legitimized, lead-protecting play — centerfielder Mikie Mahtook to second baseman Tim Beckham to catcher Maile — by the same team that was a defensive mess the night before.
But at the core of the victory, as for most of the Rays', was a strong start as Jake Odorizzi went six solid innings, allowing one run and escaping what trouble he faced.
That, of course, was a good thing.
But, also, a bad thing.
Good because it continued an impressive run by the Rays starters since the All-Star break, highlighted by a 2.95 ERA that ranks best in the American League and second in the majors.
"All I try to do is go out there and do my job, try to keep our team in it," said Odorizzi, now 5-0 with an AL-leading 1.64 ERA since the break. "And I've been successful doing it."
But bad because it was yet another reminder of just how different this season could have been had they not pitched so poorly during the first half.
And what a shame that was.
As vaunted and touted as the starters were going into the season, with Chris Archer looking like an ace and Drew Smyly, Odorizzi and Matt Moore in line, they turned out to not be very good from the start.
And for no good reason. The only issue was working in a four-man rotation the first six weeks due to abundant off days, which shouldn't have been one.
There would be a few good starts, even a short streak, but overall the first half was a massive disappointment. The starters overall had a 4.46 ERA, ranking seventh in the AL and a primary cause for the huge hole they played themselves into, still, even after winning five of six, at 51-70.
"When everybody is at their best, it's a fun thing to watch," Odorizzi said. "It started kind of Day 1 since the All-Star break, and it's kept going. This is the way we expected to be throwing the ball from Day 1 of April. …
"Obviously we all struggled for the first half. If we would have just cut that to three quarters of the first half, everything would look a whole lot better for us, for the team, everything."
That's the obvious narrative, and the logical conclusion.
Except maybe it's not.
Because despite the markedly improved starting pitching, and (relatively) good health, the Rays are just 17-16 since the break.
Which means that maybe there was more wrong than just the starting pitching all along.
Like an uncharacteristically and costly leaky defense, flawed catchers and an inconsistent, and often inefficient, offense.
"It is unfortunate we decided like a couple starts before the All-Star break to start pitching," Archer said, grinning at his verb choice.
"Not 'decided.' But it does stink.
"Right now it shows how much of this is a team sport. It's a bunch of individual battles. … But smaller things have a huge impact.
"Obviously the whole franchise would have liked it if we pitched better, but there's more to it than that. But if we did pitch better, we would be in a much better position, no question. Even if it was .500, it would be a better situation than we're in."
A game like Saturday's, where the starter is solid, the defense sharp, the offense resourceful and the bullpen effective, makes it look simple enough for next season.
"We're seeing it firsthand these last four weeks," Odorizzi said. "No reason why we can't have it next year from the get-go. We just need to start off like this."
In more ways than one.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected].