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Rays leave break with hopes, uncertainty

MINNEAPOLIS

The most significant moment over the remainder of the Rays' season could be Evan Longoria delivering a dramatic home run. Kevin Kiermaier making a spectacular diving catch. Jake McGee unleashing a 98-mph fastball for a final out. Or it may be VP Andrew Friedman answering his cellphone. As players, coaches and manager Joe Maddon regroup tonight at Target Field in hopes of continuing what would be a historic comeback march into the postseason, the possibility of trading ace David Price over the next two weeks — a trade that would derail that bid — looms as the most significant issue. The question of "Will they or won't they?" is debated daily throughout the game, followed by the speculation of "Where?" and "For what?" The Mariners were a hot Twitter topic in speculation Thursday, the Indians a few days before that, but nothing is close. Price said over the All-Star break that his best guess — or his wishful thinking, anyway — is that he's staying, based on the hefty return the Rays want, their improved play and their increased chances of making the playoffs. They resume the season at 44-53 but a within-sight 9½ games of the first-place Orioles and eight of the second American League wild card.

Friedman, naturally, isn't revealing much about his overall trade strategy. That includes whether there is a "magic number" of how close the Rays have to be to a playoff spot to not deal Price (and others), and if so, what that number is (10? 7? 5?); if it's more a matter of a team meeting his demand — much less what that is (one elite prospect/young players and another very good one?) — for him to make a deal regardless; even whether he will wait — which seems logical, right? — until closer to the July 31 deadline to assess and decide.

What he did say, with "evolving" perhaps the key word:

"We are having lots of conversations with the other teams across the league, as it is that time of year. Over the years we have never classified ourselves as a 'buyer' or a 'seller,' and this year is no different. We have a relatively large list of players that are targets for us, and other teams have expressed interest in guys from our organization. We will be aggressive to do something if it lines up with our evolving short-term and long-term objectives."

Among other key issues for the Rays over the remaining 65 games:

Ya gotta believe

Manager Joe Maddon has made it a daily point to reinforce the idea — privately, publicly and any other way he can — that the Rays can make the playoffs, saying the most important element is having the players believe it.

And his message going forward?

"Just to try to really impress upon our guys to keep playing like we have been playing over the last couple weeks," he said Thursday. "Keep that same kind of a vibe going. We can make some really loud noise.'

Their improved overall play — an American League East-best 20-11 record since June 11, a more aggressive and productive offense, increasingly better starting pitching — is one inspiration. Another is their recent past, making it to the 2011 playoffs from nine games out on Sept. 3 and having the majors' best post-All-Star-break record over the past four seasons.

But this is a bigger challenge because they have to pass several teams in both races, and it's harder to gain ground as the teams ahead of them play each other.

Plus, overall history is not kind. No team has made it to the postseason from 18 games under .500, as the Rays were on June 10, and in the past 80 years, only 12 teams have made it to the postseason from further out than the eight games they are at the break.

Break dancing

The Rays tend to play well in the second half, with the best post-break record (166-123, .574) since 2010, just ahead of the A's (164-122) and Phillies (164-123). Their past six seasons:

Pre-break Post-Year W-L Pct. W-L Pct.

2008* 55-39 .585 42-26 .618

2009 48-41 .539 36-37 .493

2010* 54-34 .614 42-32 .568

2011* 49-41 .544 42-30 .583

2012 45-41 .523 45-31 .592

2013* 55-41 .573 37-30 .552

2014 44-53 .454 ??-?? .???

* made playoffs

Comeback kids

Here are the 12 teams (since 1933) that made it to the postseason from as far back at the All-Star break as the Rays are:

Year Team GB

1978 Yankees 11.5

2006 Twins 11

1964 Cards 10

1935 Cubs 9.5

1991 Braves 9.5

1988 Red Sox 9

1993 Braves 9

2012 A's 9

1951 Giants 8.5

1942 Cards 8.5

2007 Yankees 8.5

2001 A's 8

Source: Rays

Longo being Longo

Kevin Kiermaier's catalytic performance has been unexpectedly huge, Ben Zobrist's recent hot streak encouraging, David DeJesus' and Wil Myers' eventual returns from the disabled list potentially beneficial.

But if the Rays are going to get anywhere this season, the biggest thing they need is for Evan Longoria to get back to being, well, Evan Longoria.

Though nothing has been horrible about his season — and he has been healthy enough to play in every game — everything has been disappointing.

His batting average (.257), on-base percentage (.333), slugging percentage (.398) and, residually, OPS (.719) are well below his career numbers. But the absence of power is most glaring. He has only 11 home runs and 25 extra-base hits, fewer than 111 other major-leaguers.

"I obviously didn't have the best first half," he said. "I think it's one of those things where I was trying to do too much."

So now he is taking a different daily approach: "Just trying to do something to contribute to the ball club that day."

The Rays way

Injuries played a part, but the Rays put themselves in a large hole due to massive under-performance all around. And that is the primary reason they remain optimistic about getting out of it.

"From a macro perspective, we strongly believe in the core talent on this team," Rays executive VP Andrew Friedman said. "If our guys just perform up to their capabilities, we feel like we will win a lot of games."

The starting pitching has resumed its usual place among the league's best and — assuming they keep David Price — can be a decided advantage. Kevin Kiermaier and Brandon Guyer have injected athleticism and aggressiveness to the offense and the outfield. An inspired shortstop Yunel Escobar can do the same to the infield.

But … Ryan Hanigan's latest injury isn't good given the lack of catching depth. An even larger concern looks to be the bullpen, Jake McGee and Brad Boxberger on many nights seemingly the only trustworthy late-inning options. The Rays either are going to need improvement from veteran RHPs Grant Balfour (5.60 ERA), Juan Carlos Oviedo (3.45) and Joel Peralta (4.15), or they are going to need other pitchers.

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

Rays leave break with hopes, uncertainty 07/17/14 [Last modified: Thursday, July 17, 2014 11:07pm]

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