Saturday, September 22, 2018

Jones: Rays have to hope solid second half carries over

ST. PETERSBURG — On opening day this season, the Rays had Logan Morrison at first base. Desmond Jennings was in left. Steven Souza Jr. was in right. Hank Conger was behind the plate. Brad Miller was at shortstop.

Tuesday night against the Yankees, as the Rays started their final homestand of the season with a 5-3 loss, Morrison and Souza were on the disabled list. Conger and Jennings are players without teams, having been released by the Rays. Miller is now a first baseman and occasional outfielder.

The Rays had Mikie Mahtook in right. Richie Shaffer was the DH. Bobby Wilson was the catcher. Alexei Ramirez played shortstop.

So, yes, the lineup Tuesday looked much different than opening day. And it had better look much different next opening day if the Rays are going to climb out of the American League East basement.

Tampa Bay's reclamation project is wrapping up Year 2. Now the question is: How many years is it going to take?

Hard to say, because 2016 has been just a bizarre season.

"The word that comes to mind is unfulfilling," Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said.

The Rays dropped to 64-86 with Tuesday's loss, but if you take out that awful 3-22 stretch early in the summer, the season has been somewhat respectable, especially when you consider an abundance of key injuries to key pieces such as Kevin Kiermaier, Logan Forsythe and what some would argue is the real ace of the pitching staff in Alex Cobb.

Then look at the past five weeks or so, as the Rays went on a sturdy 18-15 run that only proves there are some silver linings surrounding this dark cloud of a season.

In fact, when you see how good things can be when a rejuvenated Longoria is hitting frozen ropes and Chris Archer is pitching lights out and Miller is bombing homers and Kiermaier is flagging down balls in the outfield and Cobb is healthy, you start to think the Rays aren't all that far away from being a pretty good ballclub again.

"We all look at the times when we played well and seen what we were capable of," Longoria said. "We've seen those glimpses of what we can be."

The thing is, you don't know whether to look at the past few weeks and become frustrated over what might have been or optimistic about what might lie ahead.

"Good question," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. "It's a very even 50-50 balance of both. We're frustrated with where we're at right now, but very happy with the effort level and the way we've competed the last month."

That's what will make this offseason so intriguing for Tampa Bay.

Do the Rays simply tinker with what is already in place, trusting that the decent play we've seen over the past month or so is the real deal? Or do they look at the overall, last-place, well-below-.500 record, decide they aren't very good and overhaul half the roster?

The guess is the former. From all indications, the Rays believe they are better than they have played in 2016 and are ready to give it another go in 2017 with the core that they have now.

And, anyway, the Rays really don't have a ton of options. It's not as if they simply can go out and sign a bunch of free agents. More than anything, the Rays just want to get healthy again.

The lineup will still include a nucleus of Longoria, Forsythe, Kiermaier, Souza, Miller and Corey Dickerson.

The starting rotation will still likely feature Cobb, Archer, Blake Snell and, perhaps, Jake Odorizzi and Drew Smyly.

The bullpen needs a major rebuilding project, but at least Tampa Bay seems set with a top-flight closer in Alex Colome.

"At the end of the day, we have to be more consistent," Longoria said. "We have to be better with the pieces that we have."

Consistency. That's what it is all about.

"We got to find a way to do it for a full season," Cash said. "We just got to avoid those really tough stretches that we had."

You would think that the Rays are ready to put this season behind them and fast-forward to 2017, but surprisingly, they aren't ready to pack up and head out on vacation just yet.

Take Longoria, for instance.

"I want to finish strong," Longoria said. "There's a sense of, for me, that there's a little bit of disappointment. I feel like we underachieved a little bit. But I never come to the ballpark saying, 'Oh, I'd rather be somewhere else.' I'm glad to be coming here and still competing."

With that, Longoria looked at the clock. He apologized, but he had to run. It was time to take grounders.

After all, the standings might say otherwise, but the 2016 Rays season isn't over quite yet.

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