1. Rays

Whether you cheer or roll eyes, you can’t argue with Rays’ current success

Rays manager Kevin Cash has had plenty to smile about after his team turned things around following a rough start, moving one game over .500 going into Wednesday's game. [JIM DAMASKE  |  Times]
Rays manager Kevin Cash has had plenty to smile about after his team turned things around following a rough start, moving one game over .500 going into Wednesday's game. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
Published May 31, 2018
Updated May 31, 2018

OAKLAND, Calif. — The team that took the field Wednesday night for the Rays was different from the one that walked off celebrating a win Tuesday. Which was altered from the one that played Sunday at the Trop. Which had a slightly tweaked look than the squad that was in uniform Saturday. Which was considerably changed from the group that had assembled Friday, before the latest big trade that sent Alex Colome and Denard Span to Seattle.

In two months, this already has been a Rays season of a lot of things.
Most notably, the innovation — or, as some prefer, the idiocy — of two radical and somewhat revolutionary pitching plans.

First, to use only four — then, by necessity, three, and even, for a while, two — starters mixed with a crew of multi-inning relievers to cover the other games. Then, further pushing boundaries and tweaking traditionalists, using a reliever as the game "opener" to get three-six outs before turning to a young starter in relief, which they will do again Thursday.

Also, of some accomplishment.

From the horrid beginnings of a 1-8 and 4-13 start and a slew of injuries that sidelined five top position players and two of those four starters, the Rays battled their way back from what seemed a lost cause to a winning record, going into play Wednesday on a 23-13 roll and 27-26 overall.

But, as much as anything, a time of change.

From the end of last season to the start of spring training. From the first day in Port Charlotte to the final day escape. From opening day to May Day. Week to week, and even day to day, there's somebody coming or going. Travel director Chris Westmoreland has to be in the running at this point for team MVP.

The Rays have used 37 players, with Nathan Eovaldi on Wednesday becoming their majors-most-matching 23rd pitcher and 11th starter.
Of the 25 players active for the game, only 18 were on the opening day roster.

More stunning, only six — SIX! — were on the active roster at this time last year. Sure, four "regulars" were on the disabled list last May 30. Five of the current 25 were elsewhere in the majors. And the other 10? All somewhere in the minors.

That tells us a couple of things about this group.

One, that to this point they have remained focused even with the clubhouse door revolving and the computers whirring to find the next supposed edge. Are there occasional eye rolls over front-office ideas or player moves? Absolutely. But not enough to cause too much negativity or any disruption, which is a credit to manager Kevin Cash and his staff.

Another, that they have bonded as a group without much pedigree, seemingly determined to prove the sum greater than the parts. Only five of the 25 have been All-Stars (and just two, Chris Archer and Carlos Gomez, more than once). Six are considered rookies. More than half have yet to spend a full season in the majors.

But, for some reason, it works. Because of, or in spite of.

Criticize the front office for collecting so many lesser-knowns or past-their-primes, but credit it for choosing players who seem to have something to prove. And credit Cash and Co. for keeping them playing for the team rather than themselves.

"These first two months of the season I have really enjoyed the clubhouse atmosphere,'' said first baseman Brad Miller, who in this third season is one of the most tenured Rays. "Not saying I haven't in the past, but we really do have a bunch of guys with not a lot of ego but a lot of drive. That's kind of how I sum it up.

"We have a lot of really good players that maybe for some reason or another weren't the guys wherever they were coming up. Or maybe they have stubbed their toes a couple times.

"But I think we have a group of guys that are really hungry and don't care about the perception of our organization or the perception of what we're doing, and we just kind of keep plugging along.''

Cash talks often of the spunk and resiliency reflecting the "character" of the club, adding Wednesday how well they've handled all the ancillary issues and potential distractions.

"Each guy is entitled to handle things differently but … they've been extremely respectful of difficult situations," he said. "It's brought them maybe even closer together as a group. We find ways to win as a group. We don't have the superstar players, the one guy leading the way. We have guys that get hot at different times but they really feed off each other.''

Two months in, general manager Erik Neander likes what he has seen: "They just play ball, bring energy and have fun. They've dealt with a season's worth of adversity already, have been as professional as can be, and it has only made them stronger. Easy to root for and fun to watch."