Sunday, May 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Rays' pitching can make hot streak continue

Back on the other side of sunshine, back in those dismal days of fourth place and spinning wheels, back 2 1/2 weeks ago, an outfielder stood at his locker and tried to find a little perspective.

Yes, Matt Joyce said, his team needed to go on a winning streak. No, he said, it was not too late. Yes, he said, it was harder to do than to say.

"You have to have a lot of things go right,'' Joyce said back on June 29. "You have to have big hits at big times. Maybe we have to have a little bit of that Rays magic, where, in the late innings, you just believe you're going to win.''

Yes. And thank you, Nostradamus.

This is worth remembering because, shortly after Joyce spoke, the Rays came from behind to beat Justin Verlander, and suddenly, a lot of things were going right. The pitching. The hitting. The fielding. The bullpen. The managing. The believing.

All at once, this was the team the rest of us had been waiting to see. The Rays won 14 of their next 16 games, and they moved out of fourth place, and they passed third. They are currently in second place, and they look as complete as they have all season long.

Now, as the Rays enter the second half of their season with a particularly testy road trip that starts Friday, the challenge is to keep it up.

Just that.

It is amazing the way a team clicks sometimes. On the afternoon of the 29th, they were two games over .500, and this was taking on the looks of one of those years where there were too many injuries, too many blown leads, too many squandered chances. At the time, it was hard not to notice that this was an underachieving team.

Then, a fingersnap, and lo and behold. Every day is rainbows and parades, and darned if Joe Maddon wasn't right all along.

Consider the team since that afternoon of the 29th:

• Not only did David Price come back, he came back looking like he did in 2012. He's 2-1 since then, and his ERA is 1.08.

• Fernando Rodney, who seemed like an archer without an arrow, has regained his form. Since June 29, he has been in seven games, and he has a victory and six saves to show for it. Oh, and an ERA of 0.00.

• The team has come from behind six times to win.

• Luke Scott, the center of all that harrumphing during June, has hit .391. Maybe it's that rat-tail haircut of his, because goodness knows the muttonchops weren't enough on their own, and everyone needs a hitter who combines the best parts of Billy Ray Cyrus and Chester A. Arthur. Regardless, Scott is nailing the ball.

• Matt Moore has gone 3-0 with an ERA of 1.31 (not counting his inning in the All-Star Game). Better yet, he has reached the seventh inning in two of his past three starts after doing so only once all year.

• Jeremy Hellickson is 2-1 with a 2.37 ERA. Leads seem safe in his hands again.

• Chris Archer is 2-0 with a 1.73 ERA. The Rays have won his past four starts.

• James Loney is hitting .345. Desmond Jennings is hitting .333. Kelly Johnson is hitting .289, and Wil Myers .288, and Yunel Escobar .288.

• Joel Peralta has appeared in six games with five holds. Jake McGee has appeared in seven games with only one earned run. Alex Torres has appeared in five with no earned runs.

This is what has to happen on a winning streak. Everyone gets rolling at the same time, and suddenly, an ordinary team is extraordinary. Well, almost everyone. Right now, Evan Longoria is in a slump, and Joyce, and Ben Zobrist. And what's kind of amazing, too, is that this streak could happen while they're struggling.

When the pitching is right, however, the rest of it works itself out. Consider this: The Rays offense, as improved as it has been, scored four runs or fewer in seven of the team's past nine games. Yet, the Rays were 6-1 in those games.

Yeah, yeah. The Rays' streak coincided with a soft part of their schedule. Doubtlessly, there are some who will point that out. The Astros, White Sox and Twins aren't exactly Murderer's Row.

But schedules even out over time. Besides, when a team plays in the AL East, should it have to defend its schedule?

Oh, there is still proving to do. In professional sports, there always is. Over the next 10 days, the Rays will play three at Toronto, four at Boston and three at New York. It's the kind of trip that can wreck a good streak; frankly, 5-5 sounds passable.

Consider this: The Rays are 17 games over .500 when they play outside the division, but they are four under in the AL East. And they're 15 over at home, but one under on the road. Yeah, it's a testy road trip.

What gives you hope, where there was only a little of it before, is the way the performances have come together. Every day, the Rays are going to point a pretty good pitcher toward the mound. Every day, they're going to have a pretty good lineup.

The keys? Price, because the rotation still looks to him to be the presence of the staff. Longoria, because slump or not, he's still the best player in the lineup. Zobrist, because he always seems to come to the plate when runners are on base. Moore. Loney. Hellickson. Escobar. Rodney. Jennings. Peralta. Scott.

This is the strength of this team. It is not an All-Star laden team, despite what some would have you believe. It wins by doing the little things well, by playing hard, by coming at an opponent in waves.

As Joyce said, a lot of things have to go right. Lately, the Rays have had plenty.

On the other hand, another streak or two, just to show off, couldn't hurt.

Comments
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