ST. PETERSBURG — Rays left-hander Blake Snell, off to a great start in 2018, was talking about his team's life as a Tampa Bay second banana. He spoke at his locker, next to and nearly behind a blue banner that hung from the ceiling in the home clubhouse.
"They're going good," Snell said.
But the Rays are still around.
It is a Lightning kind of sports town at the moment, as the hockey lads continue to chase the Stanley Cup. It would be easy to say the stripped-down, no-name Rays are chasing their tails and/or the 1962 Mets. But somewhere in there, under the cover of Lightning, the Rays went from bad to better. They parked the clown car.
After a horrid 1-8 start, which turned to 3-12 (season over, right?), Kevin Cash's club has regained its footing, as if you've noticed. These guys can barely hold watch parties in their own stadium.
But the Rays, from what I can see, have become relatively pleasant on the eyes, having won 11 of 15 games, including eight straight, for a near-.500 record of 15-17 before this week's homestand against the Braves.
True, all that rallying still brought the Rays only two games closer to the Red Sox and Yankees, runaway co-owners of the AL East. And there could be another trap door right around the corner. Forget printing playoff tickets. But hold off on the burial pit. Think it couldn't be worse? Go talk to the Orioles.
All of this has gone on while the Lightning is rolling. True, there are still a lot of people in Tampa Bay who don't care about the Lightning. There have always been people who don't care about the Rays. If only they could combine forces and not care about the Bucs.
Under the cover of Lightning, with no one watching, the Rays could have lost 12 in a row while we fretted over the Lightning penalty kill. They could have fired their manager, hired another, and fired him, too. They could have built two ballparks, one in Montreal.
Instead, the Rays have become watchable, interesting, even entertaining at times. And they mean well.
Veteran Denard Span has made his homecoming a success. Daniel Robertson is hitting. Joey Wendle has played well. Snell has been one of the best pitchers in baseball. How can you not like the Johnny Field story?
Wilson Ramos extended his hitting streak to 15 games Tuesday.
Good. Trade him. Trade them all. Get Kevin Kiermaier healthy and lose him. Move pitcher/philosopher Chris Archer. Adeiny Hechavarria? Wilson Ramos? See ya. I want to see the Rays go total Braves, get their prospects to the majors, like Willy Adames, who is hitting .300 in Durham, or Jake Bauers, who has four homers and 10 RBIs down there. I'll take growing pains any day. If I'm going to lose, lose young.
These are the guy I want to see.
Back to the guys who are here.
"They've been tremendous," said Rays manager Kevin Cash, who was handed rag and tag before the season. "I think it's going to continue to get more interesting. 1-8, 3-12. We could pick apart what went wrong and the competition out of the gate. But to sit here and watch these guys come in every day … they weren't moping and didn't become lost."
"It's fun, because we can cheer each other, push each other to do better," said Snell, who worked into the seventh inning of Tuesday's 1-0 loss and gave up just four hits. "We're working hard, we're getting better. It's the confidence we have in everyone in here."
There might be a death drop out there. I picked these guys to lose 100 games. They might still have it in them. And there was Rays News of the Weird on Tuesday. Hechavarria left the game after being hit in the eye by a ball that ricocheted off the rug after a pop fly struck a speaker (ah, the Trop). And a silly Mallex Smith was easily doubled off in the ninth on a soft liner to second, right in front of him. Is this the start of something bad?
This team's play is honest and well-intentioned.
"But we've got to get past the well-intentioned and win-win," Cash said.
Eventually, the Lightning season will end. No more Rays being second banana.
"Eventually we'll be first," Snell said.
They've yet to slip on the peel.
Contact Martin Fennelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 731-8029.