Thursday, November 23, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays first half in review

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The All-Star break comes late this year, and the Rays have to be wishing at this point they could just skip it. After a slow start, injuries to several key players and a couple of months of maddeningly inconsistent play, the Rays rolled toward the break playing their absolute best baseball of the season. Here's a look back.

MVP

1. Evan Longoria, 3B

American League All-Star manager Jim Leyland apparently didn't see it this way, but Longoria has been the Rays' best player. Longoria's defense (league bests among third baseman of four errors and .981 fielding percentage) and offense (.277, team highs of 18 homers, 51 RBIs and .860 on-base plus slugging percentage) have been on daily display. Factor in the presence he adds to the lineup, leadership and determination to play through pain (most recently a plantar fascia issue), and it seems obvious just how valuable he has been.

2. Yunel Escobar, SS

So this is what a true shortstop is like. For the first time since Jason Bartlett, the Rays have one who excels on both sides of the ball. Escobar's defense has been tremendous, showing extensive range and Saturday marking his 51st consecutive errorless games. His offense, after a slow first month, has been solid, .271 with a .367 on-base percentage. And the energy he brings — especially those dugout dance moves — is quite valuable.

3. Joel Peralta, RHP

Though he has had some tough moments, Peralta has been the glue that held the bullpen together, especially early. He leads the American League with 24 holds and 49 appearances (37 scoreless) while often facing the big bats in opposing lineups (and protecting a lead in 45 of his games), has allowed only one of 17 inherited runners to score, and has held opponents to a .174 average. And he provides valuable counsel and leadership to the staff.

Runnersup: 1B James Loney, LHP Matt Moore

Most disappointing

1. David Price, LHP

Disappointment is relative to expectations particularly when coming off 20 wins and an AL Cy Young. Between his poor start and seven weeks on the disabled list, his overall performance has to be considered a disappointment. But the way he has pitched in three starts since returning (2-1, 1.08) shows well that he won't be on this list at seasons's end.

2. Luke Scott, DH

A monthlong warm streak, .366 average, 13 extra-base hits, 13 RBIs and 1.114 OPS over 22 games, reminds us what the veteran is capable of. But it's what came first, a month on the DL then hitting .207 with a .635 OPS, that was so disappointing.

3. Jeremy Hellickson, RHP

With James Shields gone and David Price hurt, Hellickson was needed to step up. But he initially stepped back, going 4-3, 5.67 over his first 14 starts, allowing five or more runs six times, failing to get past six innings eight times and blowing several leads before stabilizing.

Runnersup: RHP Roberto Hernandez, RHP Fernando Rodney

Most pleasant surprise

1. Alex Torres, LHP

Barely an afterthought in spring training, Torres took advantage of a callup to open eyes — and drop jaws — with dazzling, dominating stuff. Since coming up June 1, he leads AL relievers with a 0.41 ERA and .096 opponents' average and has earned high-leverage duty.

2. Jose Lobaton, C

Finally showing what scouts have projected, Lobaton has made significant improvement behind (blocking, pitch-calling) and at the plate, hitting .270 after coming into the season with a .202 lifetime mark. He ranks among the AL's most productive catchers recently.

3. James Loney, 1B

The Rays knew Loney was smooth defensively and expected better than his 2012 offensive showing with the Dodgers and Red Sox (.249, six homers, 41 RBIs). But they didn't expect this: a .316 average that ranks sixth in the AL, a .349 left-on-left average and the top line-drive percentage in majors.

Runnersup: RHP Alex Cobb, INF/OF Kelly Johnson

For their next act …

The Rays have had trouble holding leads, losing 21 times in games they were ahead. And if they miss the playoffs by one or two or up to nine games, here are the reasons why: nine games they let get away after leading in the seventh inning or later:

April 2: vs. Orioles, 3-2 lead in the seventh, lost 7-4

April 18: at Orioles, 5-4 lead in the seventh, lost 10-6 in 10

April 23: vs. Yankees, 2-1 lead in the eighth, lost 4-3

May 6: vs. Blue Jays, 7-6 lead in the ninth, lost 8-7

May 7: vs. Blue Jays, 4-3 lead in the eighth, lost 6-4

May 16: vs. Red Sox, 3-1 lead in the ninth, lost 4-3

May 22: at Blue Jays, 3-2 lead in the ninth, lost 4-3 in 10

May 25: vs. Yankees, 3-1 lead in the ninth, lost 4-3 in 11

June 22: at Yankees, 5-3 lead in the seventh, lost 7-5

Blue-ha-ha

Umpiring was a major issue for the Rays early on, highlighted by Marty Foster's so horrendously blown Strike 3 call on Ben Zobrist he apologized and headlined by David Price's public spat with Tom Hallion, who was fined but didn't apologize. Among others, the Rays got called for passing a runner to thwart a comeback, and the Orioles weren't called for not retouching a base ahead of a walkoff grand slam.

Weathering it

On April 10, the Rays played with a first-pitch temperature of 39 degrees in, of all places, Arlington, Texas. On May 2, they started with a temp of 41 and a feels-like of 32 and got through only 3½ innings due to the first measurable May snowfall in Kansas City since 1907. And on May 30, they sat through nearly five hours of rain delays in Cleveland to resume playing at 12:13 a.m. and finish close to 3.

Masterpiece theater

Some of the season's best drama came during the June 29-30 games against Detroit. Rays closer Fernando Rodney buzzed Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera, then struck him out. Cabrera whined, and manager Jim Leyland barked about payback. The next day, Detroit's Rick Porcello plunked Ben Zobrist. Cabrera hit the second-ever homer into the touch tank. Rays manager Joe Maddon passed on physical retaliation for mind games, sending in menacing Kyle Farnsworth to face Cabrera while having Joel Peralta warming (Farnsworth got him out) then referencing Godfather author Mario Puzo in his postgame comments.

Close calls

Silence and fear washed over the Trop on May 7 when Jays pitcher J.A. Happ was struck on the head by a line drive. Five weeks later, it stunningly happened again to Rays pitcher Alex Cobb. Both sustained relatively minor injuries and are expected back this season. … The Rays were heading out of Fenway Park when bombs went off at the Boston Marathon finish line 1½ miles away. Several players had relatives near the site. None were hurt. … The team bus was involved in a minor accident in Texas before the first road game and narrowly avoided a potentially worse one in New York.

A Mad, Mad, Mad-don world

Themed dress-up trips weren't enough as manager Joe Maddon opted for in-clubhouse entertainment, bringing in a DJ, magician, cockatoo, Latin band and a pair of Florida Aquarium penguins. … The Rays have kept a running Joe-cabulary, interesting words (real and invented) used by Maddon, including brachycardia, epiphanic, poisontry, over-boogie, preppyism and hitterish. … Maddon marked the May 8 occasion of his 600th win with the Rays by getting ejected for the second straight game, the first Ray to be tossed on back-to-back days.

Numbers game

1 At-bat at the Trop by prized prospect Wil Myers before his first curtain call.

4 Consecutive games without a walk by Jeremy Hellickson.

8 Players with 30 or more RBIs; one of only two teams with that many.

17 Consecutive games with homers, a team record, from April 15-May 3.

18 Home games with 10 or more strikeouts by Rays pitchers, providing fans with free pizza.

36 Errors this season; fewer than half as many at this point in 2012 (76).

45 Games, among his first 46, in which Evan Longoria reached base.

87 Batters faced by David Price since coming off DL — with one three-ball count.

263 Games by Desmond Jennings between his two career errors.

17,673 Average home attendance entering Saturday, 365 more than the majors-low Marlins.

     
         
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