ST. PETERSBURG — There will be a couple of new faces when the Rays resume play tonight against Boston — catcher Jose Lobaton called up to replace injured John Jaso, and lefty Jake McGee added to the bullpen — and a slightly revised rotation, with David Price leading off.
But more crucial is the players they have, specifically the hitters, doing better as they face a season-high six-game deficit and a weeklong gantlet of games against the Red Sox and Yankees that could determine their fate collectively in terms of the postseason and individually in regard to the July 31 trade deadline.
"A big week for us," Price said.
"Very important," DH Johnny Damon said.
"The playoffs," reliever J.P. Howell said, "are kind of starting now."
Manager Joe Maddon cringes when he hears such assessments, saying to look at this week as season-deciding, or anything more than seven individual games, is not only wrong but dangerous.
"If you start thinking in that other direction, then you could really lose your whole season right here," Maddon said. "There's a chance we could lose a couple games, obviously, within this homestand, and that does not put us out of the race. So I want our guys to understand and continue to play it one day at a time. … Any other way to do it is almost baseball suicidal in some ways. You just don't want to go there."
Yet Maddon stood in rightfield with the players sitting circled around him and talked for nearly 30 minutes before Thursday's workout, telling them specifically what they need to do better when hitting, pitching and running the bases, and what they need to correct, starting with the recent high number of mental mistakes, to reach their goal.
"We have very high expectations for ourselves," Maddon said, "and our expectations are to play in the playoffs."
Their defense has been the majors' best, and their pitching, starting and relieving, relatively strong. The primary problem has been the offense, which ranks eighth in the American League in runs (4.22 per game), 11th in on-base percentage (.313) and 12th in batting average (.245) and, even more mystifying, noticeably worse at home (3.26, .297, .228).
"We've got to be more consistent scoring runs," Maddon said. "It just fluctuates way too much. I know pitching has been better in general throughout baseball, but for us to get there we have to be more consistent offensively.
"We can't be perfect all the time pitching or on defense. We're going to make some mistakes. So we have to be able to hit through some mistakes on occasion. That to me is the one area we have to be able to get better on a nightly basis."
Unless they trade for an impact bat, which seems unlikely, the improvement will have to come from within as they stress the "team offense" concept, talking a lot about having "more professional" and "quality" at-bats.
Maddon specifically mentioned that third baseman Evan Longoria (hitting .239 with 11 homers and 42 RBIs) has "a lot of room for improvement," and he said Ben Zobrist (.269, 10, 43) can do more, and B.J. Upton (.239, 15, 50) needs to continue what he's doing. It doesn't have to be said they need more from shortstop Reid Brignac (.193, 1, 9) and catcher Kelly Shoppach (.168, 5, 15), who might get more playing time with Jaso out at least two weeks with a right oblique strain.
"I think it's all on the offense," Damon said.
They need to improve soon, or it may not matter. Not only could their postseason hopes slip away this week, but a bad week could make this something of their last (home)stand, as they leave town after the finale of the Yankees series next Thursday and don't return until after the trade deadline. A larger deficit would make deals more likely.
"There's still plenty of time to get this done," Maddon said. "We have better baseball to play. We just played the Yankees, I know we can beat them. We played the Red Sox here recently, I know we can beat them. And so do our guys. It's just a matter of doing it."