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Rays show plenty of resilience in opening series

ST. PETERSBURG — After watching Steven Souza Jr.'s three-run homer lead their second straight eighth-inning comeback to give his Rays a 5-3 win and a split of the season-opening series with the mighty Blue Jays, manager Kevin Cash said there is one obvious thing he learned about his team in the first four days.

"We're going to have another season where we play a lot of tight games," Cash said. "And that's okay, because the guys respond well."

Until Souza's blast onto the Ducky's Deck left of center, his second home run of the day and major-league co-leading third of the season, the Rays looked to be one rule revision and replay reversal from being swept.

Instead, they headed out of the Trop then to chilly Baltimore for the weekend feeling pretty good about themselves, and what they think they are about.

"Resiliency," Souza said. "I think that's No. 1. Being down 0-2 and today they came out swinging, (Josh) Donaldson hit that three-run homer, we could have just folded. We made a bunch of moves and our offense was supposed to be great, and when it wasn't great out the chute, we bounced back and really attacked them."

Acknowledging four games is the smallest of sample sizes — equivalent to the first 24 minutes of the Bucs' season opener — here are some other things we've learned about the Rays:

• Starting pitching: Obviously they are going to be better than their first turn through the rotation, 0-2, 4.43 in four games, averaging only five-plus innings. But they did face the game's most potent offense and logged 31 strikeouts in those 221/3 innings.

But despite their grand reputation, they are still relatively young and inexperienced, and there are going to be starts like these, when fastball command can be elusive and pitch counts escalate.

And with plans to rely primarily on the front four of Chris Archer, Drew Smyly, Jake Odorizzi and Matt Moore for the first five weeks due to abundant off days, they need them to be sharper.

• Offense: Those five guys brought in to boost the offense so far haven't done much to help, going a combined 6-for-46. Brad Miller and Logan Morrison are 0-for-10 each, and Corey Dickerson's 2-for-13 is only slightly better because his two hits were long homers. Steve Pearce is 2-for-7, Hank Conger 2-for-6.

Of equal consternation, the Rays overall are only 6-for-29 with runners in scoring position and left 25 men on.

But they did face a dazzling Marcus Stroman on opening day, then knuckleballing R.A. Dickey, followed by Aaron Sanchez and J.A. Happ, so it wasn't going to be particularly easy. "No concerns," hitting coach Derek Shelton said.

Cash said he is pleased with the aggressive approach and the team-first attitude he sees in at-bats, such as Desmond Jennings' hit-and-run single to set up Souza's big homer Wednesday. "We have good hitters," Cash said. "They're going to hit."

• Defense: The decision to ditch slick-fielding first baseman James Loney is going to be a frequent subject of conversation, if not derision.

Morrison, who as a lefty hitter will get the bulk of the platoon playing time with Pearce, has not looked smooth yet, between the line drives he had trouble with Sunday and a mis-aimed throw and indecisiveness on a grounder Tuesday.

Maybe it's just a matter of getting adjusted to the Trop quirks (backdrop, turf with dirt infield, roof, lights), but the Rays need him to be better. Pearce is supposed to be the better fielder of the two, and you wonder if he could get more than a lefty-righty share of time if Morrison has ongoing issues.

Shortstop Brad Miller is the other one to watch, given past throwing issues, though he so far has been steady.

• Bullpen: The plan to cover six weeks without injured closer Brad Boxberger was to be creative, if not unconventional. And thus far the Rays have been both, and with good results, a 1.32 ERA and 11 of 12 appearances scoreless.

Alex Colome looks to be their highest-leverage weapon, but they aren't going to save him for the ninth inning each night. That's why he was pitching with the Rays down one in the eighth Tuesday (plus they wanted to get him his first action), and when the Rays took the lead, they had him go back out for the ninth, though, until the replay reversal, it was getting messy.

And with Colome throwing 34 pitches Tuesday, that's how they ended up with Erasmo Ramirez working the final two innings Wednesday. That type of adjusting game to game may be the norm. Expect lefty Xavier Cedeno to get a chance at that 27th out, and possibly Enny Romero, too.

And to think, there are still 158 games to play.

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

Rays show plenty of resilience in opening series 04/06/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 6, 2016 11:57pm]
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