Lightning out, Rays on

Can the Little Engine That Could stun Red Sox, Yankees?
The Rays' Tommy Pham can only stare off after being picked off first base in the ninth inning to end the game against the Red Sox on Saturday, April 20, 2019, at Tropicana Field. [MONICA HERNDON   |   Times]
The Rays' Tommy Pham can only stare off after being picked off first base in the ninth inning to end the game against the Red Sox on Saturday, April 20, 2019, at Tropicana Field. [MONICA HERNDON | Times]
Published April 20

ST. PETERSBURG — We all could use a summer of love around here after the best team in hockey went belly-up.

Tampa Bay now turns its lonely eyes to the area’s other best team in its sport.

The Rays.

It’s true. Despite losing three straight for the first time this season, including two to the Red Sox — their first series loss this season — the AL East-leading Rays, ever innovative, invariably exciting, owned baseball’s best record heading into Saturday’s game at the Trop. And they stayed exciting, rallying from 5-0 down to send it to the ninth tied before falling 6-5. Tommy Pham was picked off first to end it. Weird night.

Weird season. Defending world champion Boston has stumbled out of the gate at 8-13. The 10-10 Yankees are battling injuries; their healthiest guy might be CC Sabathia, and in December he had a heart stent put in.

In other words, the runaway trains have slowed and here comes the little engine that could, at least it has so far, just as it did from 2008-13, poking the big-monied, grumpy bear Red Sox and Yankees along the way. The Rays are again out to thread the toughest needle in sports. It might not put fans in seats, heaven forbid, but nothing gets this town going like when its underdogs bark. Beats overdogs getting swept, eh?

What a glorious baseball summer this could be, one to make us forget the hockey team, particularly if reigning AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell (broken toe) quits dropping things on his foot. The rest of baseball might be hearing the Rays’ footsteps again.

True, they’ve just lost two to Boston, and we’re only at the one-eighth pole, and baseball seasons make endless hockey seasons look like the blink of an eye. But these Rays could hang in there. They could be just what the doctor ordered for Tampa Bay after watching its 62-win Lightning corkscrew onto the autopsy slab.

Also true: The Rays will not sneak up on anyone. They won 90 last year. People are on the lookout, including Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who last season guided Boston to a world championship in his first season in charge.

“I think I said that last year. If you go back to what I said: If the season lasted 15 more days, they would have been in the wild card last year,” Cora said before Friday's series opener. “They’re athletic, they can pitch, they can play defense. Right now, they’re the best team in the big leagues.”

Rays pitcher Charlie Morton, who carried a 2-0 record and 2.18 ERA into Saturday’s game but gave up five runs, including a grand slam to Andrew Benintendi, is new to the Rays. But Morton grew up in Connecticut, the DMZ in the Yankees-Red Sox vortex.

“That was part of the intrigue in coming here,” Morton said Friday. “No disrespect to the Blue Jays and the Orioles. The Yankees and the Red Sox were just two teams I kind of paid attention to.”

Him and the rest of planet baseball.

Here are your Rays, Tampa Bay, no fluke. They had won every series they had played before Boston clinched this one. They led the AL with a 2.67 ERA. Their starters had pitched to a 1.47 ERA. Tyler Glasnow, who with Austin Meadows came over from Pittsburgh in the Chris Archer deal last year, is 4-0 with an AL-best 1.13 ERA.

The Rays can throw. They can bash (Meadows and Brandon Lowe each have hit six homers). They can catch (top fielding team in the league). They are a majors-best 55-32 since last year's All-Star break.

It almost takes the sting out of having the second-worst attendance in the game. What else is new? This is the most entertaining baseball you’ve never seen.

“I think in every series we’ve played we’ve seen all parts of our roster show up,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Defense, offense, pitching, and they’ve helped us to win series to this point.”

But now we get down to cases, this Red Sox series, then another one next weekend at Fenway Park. Next month, the Yankees, home and away. The Rays play Boston and New York a combined 38 times this season, nearly one-fourth of the season. There is nothing quite like a Rays summer when they are poking the bears.

“I like that, too,” Cash said with a grin.

“No. 1, we’ve got talent,” Kiermaier said. “We’ve got talent across the board. Two, the word that really jumps out to me is ‘camaraderie.’ We all get along. It’s an absolute joy to be a part of. We’re going to write this story for ourselves, with hopefully many good chapters along the way and have that good storybook ending.”

But there is a reality out there, and it also has a bite. The Sox are bound to rebound. Reigning AL MVP and batting champion Mookie Betts is hitting just .231. Chris Sale is 0-4 with an 8.50 ERA. This weekend is Boston’s chance to make the big turn. And it is.

The Rays, meanwhile, hit two homers and four triples Saturday and somehow managed to only score five runs. Like I said, weird night.

“We’re trying to hurt their confidence as much as possible,” Kiermaier said. “They’re trying to do the same to us.”

Edge: Red Sox.

But these Rays are fun to watch. They came back on a Meadows two-run triple and an eighth-inning, tying homer by Yandy Diaz.

They are also accountable. Pham didn’t hide in the clubhouse after he was picked off to end it. He sat at his locker, still in uniform, and owned it. No one said threading the AL East needle is easy.

It could be a baseball summer in Tampa Bay. The Sox won Saturday, but 22,940 at the Trop made real noise. It’s a good sound. Who needs the best record? The best record is overrated. Just ask the Lightning.

Contact Martin Fennelly at mfennelly@tampabay.com or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly.



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