KANSAS CITY, Mo. – There’s plenty of people around who are surprised by all the good things the Rays have done in finishing April with a majors-best 19-9 record. Just not the man roaming centerfield for the local nine.
“We’ve played just the way I thought we could, to be quite honest,’’ Kevin Kiermaier said. “And it feels good to sit here and say right now in this moment we have the best record in baseball.’’
That record, completed for the month with Tuesday night’s game rained out and rescheduled as part of a moved-up afternoon doubleheader (1:15 EDT), doesn’t really get the Rays anything more than some increased national TV chatter.
But it’s a good first step - 17 percent actually – toward where they want to be after all six months and 162 games.
“You’ve got to be happy with the way this team has come out of the gate strong,’’ manager Kevin Cash said., “A lot more to do obviously, but really thrilled with just the way everything’s come together.
“The offense, pitching, defense. It seems in all of our wins, you can point to those three areas as to why they helped get the wins individually that night. We felt like we were balanced. And if you’re doing a one month review, you’ve got to like what you see.’’
There obviously has been plenty good, to go along with a dash of not-so-much, such as injuries that have sidelined Matt Duffy, Austin Meadows and Joey Wendle; a 1-4 record in one-run games; occasionally shaky bullpen work.
But, really, it’s been a heck of an opening month, and combined with the plague of injuries on the Yankees and the apparently hellacious World Series hangover staggering the Red Sox, has the Rays sitting atop the AL East.
Here are 10 key elements in their success thus far, and reasons if they can sustain anything close for optimism going forward:
1. Making their pitch
The Rays have the best ERA in the majors (2.95), the most strikeouts (280) and the third lowest opponents average (.215) through Monday. They’ve allowed two or fewer runs in more than half their games, a majors-most 15 of 28, plus one or none 10 times. Counting the eight scoreless outings by openers, their starters have been the majors’ best, with a 2.04 ERA, .189 average and 10-plus strikeouts per nine innings. Five relievers have saves in what’s been a deep bullpen bolstered by callups. “Coming out of spring we’ve said and been consistent that our pitching is going to carry a big load,’’ Cash said. “And after one month if you’re going to review, they’ve certainly done that. A lot of guys have thrown the ball well.’’ While they aren’t likely to sustain that level of dominance, the depth of the staff has been impressive and encouraging. “All of ‘em,’’ Cash said. “You can’t find a negative in there. And that’s probably a reason we’ve had the success, the record where it is.’’
2. Plus/minus rating
A good predicator of season success is usually run differential, premised on the basic concept of scoring more than you allowed, although skewed by blowouts. When the Rays have made the playoffs they’ve been good at it. Thus far, they’ve been the best, their plus-47 10 better than the next-in-line Yankees, and 78 up on the Red Sox.
3. Different driver every day
The Rays are a true sum-of-their-parts squad, with no established superstar position players, but plenty of pretty good ones, who’ve all done their share of great things. “It’s been a new hero each game,’’ Kiermaier said.
4. Taking their hacks
Hitting the ball hard doesn’t mean you’re going to get on base, but it helps. The Rays, through Monday’s StatCast readings, put a majors-most 213 balls in play with an exit velocity of at least 100 mph. Their average exit velo of 90.3 mph ranked second best to the Yankees, and up notably from last year’s 87 mph, which was 26th. Tommy Pham is leading charge with 34 balls in triple digits.
5. First things first
The combination of stellar pitching and an aggressive offense has repeatedly gotten the Rays off to good starts, as they’ve outscored teams 29-4 in first innings. That’s the most runs scored for any team in the first and fewest allowed, and the largest margin of any team for any frame. They’ve scored in the first in 18 games, including 10 of 12 road games.
6. Cash’s kids
A prevalent part of the narrative since spring has been how well they all get along, how unselfish they are, how much fun they have together. Obviously winning is at the root of some of that, but they’re confident it’s real deal, and here to stay. “Just a true joy to be a part of,’’ Kiermaier said.
7. For openers
No, not that kind of opener. Series openers. The key to success over a full season can boil down to winning series, which usually means two out of three, with an occasional sweep mixed in. Thus far they’re 8-1. Their first step has been big, winning the opening game eight times, and all five on the road.
8. Going deep
Accruing depth to provide quality coverage at every position was a priority, and that’s paid off so far as they’ve weathered the loss of Duffy, Meadows, Blake Snell and Wendle.
9. And the winner is …
Voting is months away, but Rays have done well enough to emerge among the way-too-early favorites for major awards: Tyler Glasnow, at 5-0, 1.75, for the Cy Young; Brandon Lowe, hitting .289 with six homers, 17 RBIs, a .917 OPS for Rookie of the Year; Yandy Diaz (.298-7-18-.990) and Meadows (.351-6-19-1.097) for MVP.
10. Ya gotta believe
Rays execs and staff felt they had a pretty good team, but sometimes the players have to see it to believe it. And this first month has done a lot to build confidence in the clubhouse, which helps keep good times going and bad from lingering. “We control our own destiny, and that’s a beautiful thing,’’ Kiermaier said. “It’s up to us to sit here and keep writing this story of a season.’’
Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.