Wednesday, January 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays believe they have formula for playoff run

TORONTO — The Rays feel pretty good about where they are right now, riding a 17-4 streak into the All-Star break and resuming play tonight at the Rogers Centre in second place in the American League East, just 2½ games off the Red Sox's surprising pace.

But the bigger question is where are they going to be 10 weeks from now when they return to Toronto for the final weekend of the regular season.

There's a lot that goes into it, of course.

And plenty of questions to be answered between now and then.

Will their starting pitchers continue to perform as expected? Can they sustain their improved offense, which has posted the fifth-most runs in the league? Will the heavily used bullpen hold up? Is the defense that good? What's fair to expect from rookie Wil Myers? Will they add help at the July 31 trade deadline?

"There are so many things that have to go right to win this division — we believe it's the toughest division in sports — so I don't think you can isolate just one factor," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "But we have always been at our best when our pitching staff has been locked in, and if we can keep the opposition off of the board consistently in the second half, that will be a tremendous foundation."

The Rays are confident they have enough to reach the playoffs for the fourth time in six seasons, preferably by winning the East.

"I think we're in a good place,'' manager Joe Maddon said Thursday.

That said, here are five numbers worth noting as the Rays play the first of the 66 games they have left to try to get there:

15 Consecutive quality starts by Rays pitchers

The Rays are built on starting pitching, but they had an unexpectedly rough beginning to the season, scarred by injuries to David Price (triceps) and Alex Cobb (concussion). But with Price back and throwing well, a sense of normalcy has returned, as the starters are again pitching like some of the game's best. And with Cobb aiming for an early August return, the Rays will be in that good-problem-to-have position of deciding how to make room.

38 Major-league-most remaining road games for the Rays

Though the Rays have the fourth-most wins in the majors, they have a losing record away from the Trop (21-22). And the road is rough right away, as the Rays open postbreak play with a 10-game trip to Toronto, Boston and New York. They are 4-9 thus far in those cities and failed to win a series. They still have to make two trips to the West Coast: at the Diamondbacks and Dodgers (Aug. 6-11), and at the A's, Angels and Mariners (Aug. 30-Sept. 8). And the Rays end the season visiting the Yankees and Jays. The biggest issue away from home has been the pitching, a 4.01 ERA compared to 3.67 at the Trop.

.136 Evan Longoria's batting average during the Rays' 17-4 streak

The Rays' best player hasn't been playing well lately, with just two extra-base hits and a .514 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in his 18 games during that stretch. But the good news is there is a good chance the star third baseman is going to get better and the Rays have managed to do so well with so little from him, primarily carried by James Loney (.373), Luke Scott (.351) and Desmond Jennings (.312).

36 Errors by the Rays, second fewest in the majors, behind Baltimore's 30

The Rays and Orioles are on pace to break the 2003 Mariners record for a 162-game season (65). The improvement, down from 76 errors at this point last year, has made a difference and is a reason why the Rays pitching staff has been so effective. The tidiness in the infield has been impressive as shortstop Yunel Escobar and second baseman Ben Zobrist have matching 52-game errorless streaks. Escobar has tied the team record at the position. Third baseman Evan Longoria has a 40-game errorless streak of his own.

13 Consecutive saves converted by closer Fernando Rodney

After a rough start to the season in which he blew five of his first 14 saves, Rodney has looked more like he did last season, which is a good sign for the entire bullpen. In 12 innings over those 13 games, he has allowed only six hits and struck out 19. More important, after allowing 19 walks in his first 21 appearances of the season, he has allowed only five in his past 20. As Rodney goes (he is 22 of 27), so goes the bullpen, with a 2.29 overall ERA since his last blown save May 25.

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]com.

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