Friday, June 22, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Jones: With season on brink, Rays save things ... for now

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays were back home Friday night after a 127-day road trip. Well, it seemed that long anyway.

"I think the road trip probably seemed longer than it was maybe because of the Royals sweep," catcher Hank Conger said. "That series was just ugly overall."

So was the first half of what was, in reality, a 10-game trip.

Strikeouts galore. An ejection. Blown leads. Crummy starting pitching. A four-game losing streak, including that three-game sweep to the defending-champion Royals and a loss to the Twins, the worst team in the American League.

Pitchers were griping about coming out of games. Broadcasters were griping about a lack of hustle. Even the Griswolds thought it was a bad road trip.

"We got beat up pretty good in Kansas City," manager Kevin Cash said. "We found ways to lose, and they just kicked our butts."

But then?

"We bounced back," Cash said.

Somehow the Rays survived. Showed a little character. Showed a little heart.

"It would have been very easy for that club to just mope and hang their heads for the rest of the road trip," Cash said.

"They did not."

Tampa Bay rallied to win four of the final five games on the trip, finishing with a 5-5 record in the 10 games. Never has a .500 trip looked so good.

Know what else the Rays did? Saved their season.

Seriously.

Maybe it's only temporary, just some fool's gold, just the calm before more storms. After all, the Rays still are in last place in the AL East and might stay there for the rest of the season.

But at least now there's still some hope. That's the good news considering they were dangerously close to falling off the cliff after four straight losses on the trip to fall eight games below .500. You could feel the season slipping away.

"Coming back the way we did and winning in the ways we did win was pretty cool," outfielder Mikie Mahtook said.

Give credit to veterans.

Start with Evan Longoria. He's starting to resemble the Longo we haven't seen in a few years — the All-Star Longo, the difference-maker Longo. More than anyone else, he's making sure the 2016 season isn't going to fizzle out without a fight.

"Special players do special things when times are needed," Cash said of Longoria.

Logan Morrison has gone from not being able to hit a beach ball to crushing everything. Desmond Jennings, the guy called out for his lack of hustle on the trip, showed he still has some pride left. Corey Dickerson awoke from a slumber with a two-homer game.

"You can have as many meetings as you want," outfielder Steven Souza, Jr. said, "but everybody kind of dug deep down inside of themselves and we all turned it around as a group, and that was what was really fun to see."

Season saved … for now.

"We're a pretty young team, but you look at Longo and the guys who really set the pace," Conger said. "I think it kind of helps when the leaders of the team set the tone. They understand the even keel of it. And everyone else kind of goes with the flow of that."

Even keel. You hear a lot of that in baseball. You got to be even keel. It's a long season. It's a marathon not a sprint. Can't get too high or too low.

That all sounds great when talking in hypotheticals before the season. It sounds great in spring training. It's another when you're in the midst of a losing streak during a disastrous road trip.

"It's difficult at times," Cash said, "but that's when you kind of rely on your leadership of your veterans in the clubhouse, and we've got some guys who have done a really nice job with carrying themselves."

Still, going through such rough patches can test everyone.

"It's definitely a test of character," pitcher Chris Archer said. "A lot of people's true character is revealed in those times."

Hey, give the Rays credit. They showed some character. And give much of that credit to Cash, who is learning on the job how to navigate a major-league team through rough waters.

"I think it's fair to say it tested all of us, myself included," Cash said.

Cash didn't lose his cool, didn't lose his patience. He stayed calm. He didn't do anything knee-jerk, like overturn the lineup or wear pajamas or bring in snakes or penguins or a medicine man. He simply trusted his players, kept running them back out there. He stayed even keel.

"Guys responded," Cash said.

They did. They have. But much work remains. The starting pitching, the supposed strength of the team, better straighten up and fly right if the Rays hope to hang around the playoff race. The team's inconsistent starting rotation is the reason it remains under .500 and will be the reason should it climb over .500.

But at least there's hope as the Rays begin a stretch of home cooking — nine straight home games and 20 of the next 27 at the Trop.

It's hope restored after a long and salvaged road trip.

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