ST. PETERSBURG — Ask around the Rays, from players to staff to front-office execs to principal owner Stuart Sternberg, and you hear abundantly that the biggest difference in manager Kevin Cash from his first year in charge to finishing his second is how much more comfortable he seems in the job.
"I think we saw the real Kevin this season," baseball operations president Matt Silverman said. "Last year we were all learning on the fly together. This spring, he arrived with the perspective and confidence that can only be gained by experience. He was both more relaxed and more focused. The one constant is his emphasis on communication and relationship-building."
Ask Cash, a competitive cuss whose wins-are-the-only-thing mantra makes for tough self-evaluation, and he, begrudgingly, agrees.
"I feel more comfortable with a lot of the decisions," Cash said. "I don't think there's as much lying in bed as night as far as overanalyzing. That's a tough question because I don't want to even remotely imply like, 'Oh, I've got it figured out.' Because bad decisions really beat me up still. And they will 20 years from now."
That comfort factor manifests itself in many ways:
How Cash, 38, communicates with the players individually (in person, by text, on the phone), with a small group of core players he now convenes occasionally to discuss issues, and with the whole team when circumstances dictate. How he solicits input from and trusts the coaches in forming strategy. How he winnows and processes the voluminous data the front office provides. How he manages the game, from constructing the lineup to putting runners in motion to manipulating the bullpen.
"He's just more comfortable," bench coach Tom Foley said. "And more confident."
Coming in last year, with no managerial experience and only two years as a bullpen coach on his post-playing resume, Cash had so much to figure out, even where he would stand in the dugout. Despite having gone 80-82 in 2016 and 65-89 thus far this season, it's obvious he is in good standing.
"I just think overall he had better control of the team," veteran Evan Longoria said. "It wasn't that he didn't have control of the team last year, but you don't know what to expect from a first-year manager who is just a few years removed from playing and is very young.
"I just felt like he was a lot more in control this year. There weren't too many situations that I felt overwhelmed him."
The 89-and-counting losses are enough to make this a tough year on Cash anyway. How they got there was worse, losing 22 of 25 going into the All-Star break, tumbling from being a .500 team in contention to 20-under and done by mid July, sparking fan chatter — totally unwarranted, as Sternberg would say later — about Cash's job security in the second of a five-year deal.
"Without saying this the wrong way, that didn't even enter my mind," Cash said. "And maybe I'm an idiot for thinking that way. But it was all about how are we going to get out of this."
By the time they did — and they have pretty much played at a .500 pace since — it was too late.
But knowing this season was lost, Cash took the opportunity, in both public moves and closed-door conversations, to address issues to make them better for the next, increasing tough love, discipline and accountability and improving the clubhouse culture, including encouraging players to take expanded leadership roles.
"He seems to get tough in the times he needs to," Sternberg said.
Besides the losing, Cash faced — or was willing to take on — more challenges this season than last.
• He fired a coach, making the personally difficult phone call to let hitting coach Derek Shelton go after reaching a joint decision with his bosses.
• He made the bold move to pull Steven Souza Jr. out of a game for a lack of hustle.
• He was instrumental in the decisions to release outfielder Desmond Jennings, to demote infielder Tim Beckham after repeated baserunning mistakes, and not to call up attitudinally challenged Beckham and Taylor Motter this month.
Along the way, Cash learned how to manage the games better, and to manage the team.
In dismissing Shelton, he consulted with other managers on how best to handle that type of move before accepting there was "no right way, no good time."
After benching Souza, Cash declined to comment, saying it was an in-house matter, then saw it become a topic of player, media and fan discussion for days. In emphasizing open two-way communication with the players, and relishing the repartee of joking and jabbing with them, he also has to find the proper balance so that every decision is not a topic for discussion.
Cash still arrives at the stadium before noon for 7 p.m. games but has made some changes, backing off on having batting practice every day, taming his instincts to be more aggressive with the running game and reconsidering his lineup construction philosophy to alternate left- and right-handed hitters.
And he knows there is so much more to learn, such as handling a successful team and managing in high-pressure games that truly are meaningful.
"He's got to make zillions of decisions," Sternberg said. "Nobody is right on all of them, but he's got a tremendous hit rate."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.