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Rays beat Orioles, but tough stretch looms that could change their plans (w/video)

The Rays’ Tim Beckham celebrates with Mallex Smith after hitting a three-run homer in the second inning for a 5-0 lead.
Published Jul. 26, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — Tuesday was a step back in the right direction for the Rays, who halted a season-high five-game losing streak by hanging on — and we mean that pretty much literally — for a 5-4 win over the Orioles.

Rookie Jake Faria made his shaky previous outing look like just a blip by working solidly into the eighth. Tim Beckham delivered the big hit they'd been missing with a three-run homer in the five-run second. And the bullpen duo of Tommy Hunter and Alex Colome teamed, somewhat tenuously, to get the final five outs, with huge hand from the steady glove of third baseman Evan Longoria.

Logging their 52nd W was important, as was stopping the negative momentum and vibe as the losing streak reached five.

"We needed to shake hands," manager Kevin Cash said. "We needed a win, and that was a good one."

But the bigger issue was keeping the front office on track with their plans leading up to Monday's nonwaiver trade deadline seeking a proven reliever and a right-handed bat.

Looking to buy.

But it's fair to wonder if there is a "for now" to be attached to that.

The five straight losses didn't actually hurt the Rays too badly as they are one game back for the second American League wild card and within three of the East-leading Red Sox, pending Boston's late West Coast game, though with the Yankees now betwixt them.

But their skid came at a bad time, not just because it was in the week leading up to the deadline but because of what their next three weeks look like.

After wrapping things up with the Orioles today, the Rays head to New York to open a perilous stretch of their schedule — 17 games against the contending Yankees, Astros, Brewers, Red Sox and Indians.

And that, too, could cause some pause on the plan.

This is an analytics-driven team playing a statistic-based game, so there is obviously a calculus involved in determining the wisest course of action. (As Cash joked after the game, "Our analytic guys upstairs are telling me the percentages of one win and one loss — I've heard a lot over the last couple years.")

But some combination of the Rays results, the computer projections and additions made by teams they are competing against — with rumors of the Yankees working to get top starter Sonny Gray and All-Star first baseman Yonder Alonso from Oakland — are going to factor in, on kind of a sliding scale.

In other words, there likely is a number of wins over the next five days that would reinforce the decision to buy. Relievers that have been mentioned include Justin Wilson, Hunter Strickland, Pat Neshek, AJ Ramos and Tony Watson, among others. As for bats, Ian Kinsler, Brandon Phillips and Melky Cabrera are at least worth thinking about.

A different digit that might back them off from paying a premium price in terms of which prospects they'd give up, or even scroll them back to stand pat.

And maybe even in a worst-case scenario, like losing another five straight, that would get them to flip to be sellers by Monday's 4 p.m. deadline.

"We've got to get on a roll now," Cash said. "We've got a challenge (today) in a day game here, and then obviously we go on the road."

All of which brings us back to a question we thought we answered last week:

Could today be Alex Cobb's last start at the Trop as a Ray?

As the Rays' sturdiest starter and a huge part of their success, it would definitely seem not if the front office execs believe as strongly in the team as they've been indicating.

As a free agent who can otherwise walk away at the end of the season with no compensation, it could certainly be if the Rays brass were to second-guess the legitimacy of their chances.

Asked about the possibility on Tuesday, Cobb said he hadn't thought about it one bit. And really didn't expect to.

"I would like to go back in baseball history and see how many times a team has been a seller while you're currently in a playoff spot," Cobb said. "That would be a good reference point to start at. Or being a game out. I wonder how many teams have sold."

Plus, these Rays haven't been in the playoffs since 2013, and not under their current management.

"From being around here knowing how much the organization cherishes the opportunity," Cobb said. "Every organization cherishes it, but for us, how difficult it is to compete in this division, and how very few opportunities we have to make the playoffs, it would just be — I don't really know the right word — how asinine it would be to a team to not take full advantage of that opportunity."

Win a couple, buy a couple. That sounds like a plan.

Marc Topkin can be reached at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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