KANSAS CITY, Mo. — They're further out now, 6½ games, than they were at any point last season. They've got two teams to catch in their own division, plus another to hurdle in a wild-card race they'd rather not be in. And they have only 73 games left to play with.
But as the Rays resume The Season After, they are supremely confident not only that they can cover the necessary ground to return to the postseason but that it shouldn't be that difficult.
They don't need, they said, to do much differently.
"Just more consistently," manager Joe Maddon said. "We have to play a consistent brand of baseball. We've got to get our starting pitching in order. We've got to play better defense. We've got to maintain our offense.
"And I think, I know, we can do it."
"It's very doable," pitcher Scott Kazmir said. "We have what it takes."
"Definitely," infielder Jason Bartlett said.
"Oh yeah," pitcher James Shields said. "There's so many games left. What are we, 6½ out? That could change in heartbeat. The Red Sox, the last month and a half before the All-Star break, it was almost like those guys couldn't lose. You gain one game a week, we've got more than six weeks left. We just need to keep playing our game."
There are a few Rays, specifically Pat Burrell, Kazmir and Dioner Navarro, who can have an extremely large impact by playing better. Overall health and depth, of course, will be important. The match game in the bullpen needs to continue to be successful.
Maddon considers the schedule favorable, even though it's evenly split, with 37 games at home (where they are 30-15, third best in the AL) and 36 on the road (where they are 18-26, sixth worst in the AL), including the 10-game trip through Kansas City, Chicago and Toronto that starts tonight.
They have 18 games against the two teams they are chasing — eight with the AL East-leading Red Sox, five at home; and 10 with the wild-card-leading Yankees, six at home.
"Honestly, all we have to do is beat those guys," Bartlett said. "We do that, we gain ground."
Here's a look at three guys who can help make that happen:
Burrell's first half was a mess, what with the five weeks he spent on the disabled list and the weak numbers he put up, a .232 average, four homers and a .347 slugging percentage.
But he has been swinging better and making better contact the last couple of weeks, giving the Rays reason to think he might be ready to go on one of his characteristic hot streaks and carry them for a while.
"We're not even asking for extraordinary, just being him based on his production the last couple years can be a tremendous boost," Maddon said. "You talk about those one-run games (they're 11-14), just him being himself can really put us over the top, and I believe he will."
Burrell, in the first season of a two-year, $16-million deal, very much wants to do his part.
"We've got a lot of ground to make up," he said. "For us to get back in this thing we have to consistently win and for us to do that everyone has to pull their own weight, including me. Hopefully I can continue to swing the bat well and we get something going."
Since spending five weeks on the disabled list to rework his mechanics, Kazmir has made three starts — two that were pretty good, one that was not.
Having him regain his winning form, and filling out a pitcher rotation of Shields, Matt Garza, David Price and surprising rookie Jeff Niemann that lacks for consistency, is important.
Kazmir said he's close, that he's getting more confident with each start, and that he has to force himself to be patient: "You want everything to happen right then and there, but after 1½ years of going through all this stuff, you have to build yourself back up."
The Rays, too, are eager.
"I could see him really putting this all together and having a dominant second half based on freshness, the fact that he feels better about his delivery, his strike-throwing appears to be improved," Maddon said. "I could see him being really vital in our success in the second half."
Navarro's dropoff from last year's All-Star season has been a part of all the Rays' problems — his offense (a .223 average and .254 on-base percentage), defense (throwing out only 11 of 53 base-stealers, four errors, four passed balls), pitching (a 4.18 catchers ERA, up slightly from last season). But he remains confident he can salvage this season, and Maddon cites the history of 2007, when Navarro followed a horrid first half with a solid second.
The coaches have worked with him recently on his entire game, and Maddon expects to see improvement in all facets.
"I think we've started to get him straightened out," Maddon said. "I have a lot of faith in him. Based on? I believe this guy plays with a lot of calm, he does not carry things over, he does definitely care, and he's been an All-Star and he's been in the World Series.
"For all those reasons, my expectations are that he's going to have a really good second half."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]