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The Tampa Bay Rays have the best record in the majors despite a lack of offense from several key players

ST. PETERSBURG — What the Rays have done over the first month and a half is amazing enough, compiling a major-league-best 24-10 record despite playing more than half their games on the road.

But as they return to Tropicana Field tonight for a brief, five-game homestand, what's more impressive is how they've done it.

A major part of their success has come courtesy of their pitchers, specifically the five starters, with an overall ERA of 2.78 that not only leads the American League by a large margin (0.83 over the Twins through Thursday's play) but is the lowest by an AL team at this point of the season in 20 years.

But equally noteworthy is what they haven't gotten from their hitters.

Sure, the hitting has been timely, a product of their intensive spring efforts under new hitting coach Derek Shelton to improve performance in clutch situations. The Rays have a major-league-leading .310 average with runners in scoring position and the second-most runs (189, an average of 5.6 a game) of any team.

But consider their success given some of their overall numbers — 19th in batting average (.253), tied for 18th in home runs (30), 16th in on-base percentage (.332) and fourth most in strikeouts (272).

Yet first in wins.

"It's not just about hitting," manager Joe Maddon said. "I think we're playing a pretty complete game right now. You have to run the bases, you have to catch the ball, all that stuff. We're doing all those things.

"And, of course, we're pitching. The starting pitching, without that, none of this is possible."

Essentially what the Rays are doing offensively is just enough to win. Whether it's Jason Bartlett beating out ground balls, Carl Crawford singling through a hole, Ben Zobrist dropping down a bunt, Evan Longoria driving a ball in the gap, or rookies Reid Brignac and John Jaso lacing another unexpected hit, they're finding a way. They're putting pressure on defenses by hustling, taking advantage of mistakes and maximizing opportunities.

But when there are stretches — and they're going to come — when the pitching isn't going to be that good, the Rays are going to need more production from throughout the lineup.

Consider that on some nights, they start four players hitting under .220.

"Our offensive unit has really bought into the team offense concept," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said Thursday. "The results are a much more efficient offense. There are a few offensive metrics that are probably not sustainable, but at the same time we have a number of players who are performing under their baseline."

And those are the players the Rays are eventually going to have to count on to do their part:

• Carlos Peña, who is hitting .183: The double he got in the eighth inning Wednesday was just his second hit of May, his season scarred by a 2-for-43 mess. The No. 5 hitter hasn't driven in a run in 11 games or homered in 12.

• B.J. Upton, who is hitting .218: Despite a promising spring and encouraging start, he's in a 4-for-39 funk, has driven in three runs in his last 15 games and hasn't homered in 20 games.

• Ben Zobrist, who is hitting .268: Improvement has been coming slowly for the No. 3 hitter, who has been challenged, and somewhat stymied, by an assortment of offspeed and out-of-the-strike-zone pitches in the followup to his breakout 2009 season. But the big number is the zero in his home run column, as he has now gone 140 at-bats (dating to Oct. 1). He and the Rockies' Todd Helton are the majors' only regular No. 3 hitters (at least 20 games) who have not homered.

• Dioner Navarro, who is hitting .172: The loss of Kelly Shoppach to injury was softened by the emergence of Jaso, but Navarro hasn't held up his half of the platoon. He hasn't driven in a run in more than a month (and only two overall) and has three extra-base hits.

• Pat Burrell, who is hitting .213: Having been reduced to a part-time DH, Burrell hasn't had a home run or RBI in May, and he is striking out at a career-high rate of more than 30 percent of his plate appearances.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

Offensive, and not in a good way

Statistics for the Rays' 14 position players this season:

Player Avg. HR RBI Gms

Jaso .341 1 12 16

Longoria .326 8 29 34

Crawford .316 3 16 34

Zobrist .268 0 15 33

Brignac .262 2 14 23

Aybar .255 3 9 16

Shoppach .250 0 0 4

Bartlett .248 0 18 32

Kapler .234 1 6 19

Rodriguez .222 1 8 21

Upton .218 4 18 33

Burrell .213 2 13 23

Pena .183 5 22 33

Navarro .172 0 2 21

The Tampa Bay Rays have the best record in the majors despite a lack of offense from several key players 05/13/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 14, 2010 12:59am]

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