ST. PETERSBURG — Opening his fourth season leading the Rays, Kevin Cash's biggest challenge was managing … feelings.
"Delivering the message that we're going to be okay,'' he said. "Nobody thought that we were going to be okay.''
A winter and early spring purge of veterans from the roster put Cash on the front line of dealing with fans, reporters and, most importantly, remaining Rays players questioning what in the world, and some other more colorful characterizations, they were doing.
Cash had to sell the plan, that they weren't tearing down but replacing and rebuilding. More vexing, he had to coat it with something he typically has very little of himself, patience, even more necessary as they staggered through a brutal 4-13 start.
"We were confident in a small group that we had a lot of talent coming up but it was not going to be seen right away,'' Cash said. "We had to show enough patience. I had to show patience. …
"It was challenging. There were some days I scratched my head. I looked at KK (Kevin Kiermaier) and (since-traded closer Alex) Colome and said 'I can't sit here and say we're better right now. I can't.' But I could tell them we're confident with the decisions we're making and it's going to quickly turn.''
Five months into the season, sitting a season-high nine games over .500 at 70-61, the Rays indeed do seem to be okay.
And how Cash handled those early situations, as well as, for openers, a few other issues that have come up, is a significant element to their success, as relative as it may be.
"He deserves the credit he's received and then some for everything he has navigated to this point,'' general manager Erik Neander said.
The Rays, presumably this offseason, will show their appreciation.
When they hired Cash, with no managing experience and only two seasons as a big-league coach manning the Indians bullpen, they were questioned for signing him to a five-year deal, albeit for a reasonable $5 million or so total. But they said at the time they expected him to be on the job for a long time, as was the first-timer he replaced, Joe Maddon, who did pretty well in his nine years, and since.
With Cash now heading into that last season in 2019, the Rays would be expected to at the least pick up his two-year option for 2020-21, if not discuss an extension.
"I think the hope, the desire is to keep this going for a while,'' Neander said. "We're starting to see the page turn. We believe the future is bright and ideally this is something we all see through together.''
Think of everything the Rays have endured this season.
Ditching another half dozen veterans since opening day. The rough start, with a pair of eight-game losing streaks. Implementing, constantly adjusting and explaining (in the clubhouse and publicly) the unorthodox pitching plan of using game openers. A staggering run of injuries. Constantly shuffling the roster, using 31 pitchers and 20 rookies, 13 currently active. A majors-most 52 one-run games.
Cash not only kept the clubhouse from being fractured, but kept the players focused and integrated that young talent into the mix.
"He commands the clubhouse and he does it with an approach that motivates guys to play for him,'' Neander said. "He goes about his business with a certain consistency, a certain energy and a certain toughness that is the same way I think we want our players to go about their day. And they've really responded to that.''
There's always some grumbling in a clubhouse about the manager because every player can't be happy with the decisions made. But what you hear about Cash is appreciation for the way he communicates directly, the low-key and positive atmosphere he maintains, the back-and-forth exchanges he engages in.
"I've enjoyed playing for him since Day One,'' said Kiermaier, the only player left from Cash's 2015 debut season. "He's always been the same guy, just a good, fun attitude. We know we can joke around with him. We say some things you probably can't say to any of the other 29 mangers, but it's all through respect. … It's fun to have somebody running the helm like that.''
Cash said he's constantly learning and working to get better, and his overall growth in terms of confidence in the role and the decision-making has been obvious. So, too, Neander said, is the humility Cash shows in doing so. His competitiveness is always on display. Also, his increased level of comfort, evidenced among other ways by the coaches he brought in and has empowered. And his self-deprecating style and sense of humor is still omnipresent.
"I think more than anything he's really solidified himself as a leader of this organization,'' Neander said.
Early in the season baseball people talked of Cash in comparison to mentor Terry Francona almost sympathetically. How Cash was probably a good manager but was in a bad situation with the Rays, and likely would excel in his next opportunity, as Francona did after losing with the Phillies and then winning big with the Red Sox, and again with the Indians.
Now, the talk is just about what a great job Cash has done, how he's going to get some consideration in the AL manager of the year voting, how he seems to be evolving into one of the next great ones right where he is, and with a stockpile of young talent that could make the Rays winners for a while.
You know what? From the look of it, they're going to be okay.
Contact Marc Topkin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.