ST. PETERSBURG — Whatever conclusions you’ve drawn about the Rays to this point, good or bad as they sit 27-17, a half-game out of first place in the AL East and four games from third , know this:
You ain’t seen nothing yet.
After what team officials privately call a soft opening, the Rays enter what looks to be a defining segment of their schedule on Tuesday. It’s one which will either validate them as legit contenders, and worthy of additions to the roster, or expose weaknesses that will prove them unfit for contention.
It’s a grueling stretch mentally and physically, in terms of quality of opponents, including three division leaders, and quantity of games: 34 in the next 34 days (with one day off and one doubleheader) and 47 in 48 leading up to the early July All-Star break.
“I said from the beginning we had to make hay right through now, and we did,’’ principal owner Stuart Sternberg said. “We have a stretch in front of us in the next six-plus weeks that is going to be as tough and challenging as we’ve faced for that extended period of time with the opponents, the travel and the number of games in the number of days.
However, if we’re able to come through this somewhat unbloodied, I’ll be incredibly optimistic come July. And what that means, not to be a downer, is if we can stay within three-four games of first place. The Yankees are going to start getting healthy and we have this tough schedule. … I’d be fine with that.‘’
Having to show up for work pretty much every day for the next 6 ½ weeks isn’t going to earn the Rays much pity, given that other teams go through similar vexing stretches, and that their “job” is really just playing a kids’ game, with amazing pay and pretty good perks, including luxe travel.
But break it down, and you see why it’s arduous and onerous.
* Starting Tuesday, they play 13 consecutive days, including series with the contending Dodgers, Indians and Twins before a day off (in Detroit, so at least they can get plenty of rest).
* Then they play 20 straight days, and 21 games thanks to a rainout makeup doubleheader in Boston, facing the Red Sox and Yankees again, plus the pesky A’s and Angels. Throw in the rigors of playing in New York on one day (June 19) and in Oakland the next.
* And after a day off (in Minnesota), they play another 13 in a row, at the surprising Twins and finishing with four at home against the AL East leading Yankees before the most welcomed All-Star break they’ll ever have.
“It’s going to be a test, physically and mentally,’’ veteran centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “You have to find ways.’’
The Rays, who usually have a plan, a backup, a couple contingencies and a computer model for every situation, have obviously given this considerable thought.
And there will be significant impact, from the practical to the strategic, specifically how frequently they use their relievers.
“Most of the conversations have been built around the pitching,’’ manager Kevin Cash said. “Obviously we like to be aggressive in using the pitching staff and going to the bullpen. That’s not the easiest thing to do when you don’t have off-days to kind of re-set it at times.’’
The lack of off-days will impact their pitching in several ways.
They’ll have to be more judicious in how many relievers they use in any one game, perhaps passing on a slightly better matchup at times, to make sure they have a couple available for the next day, or two.
Figure they’ll be in heavy use of the Durham shuttle — or “roster management,’’ as Cash called it — rotating in fresh arms from their crew of optionable relievers.
With only two traditional starters, they’ll have to be a little more structured with their bulk-inning pitchers. Expect to see Jalen Beeks, Yonny Chirinos and a soon-to-be-called up Ryan Yarbrough used in pretty much a set rotation, normally behind an opener but with a few straight starts mixed in.
And to get an extra day of rest for Blake Snell and Charlie Morton, they may mix in a bullpen day, or two, where they ask a couple guys to go three-four innings.
The position players will require some special handling, too, in addition to scheduled days off.
There will be some days where they cut back on pre-game work, not taking ground balls, as has been fairly regular, or batting practice, not even in the cages.
Maybe even a couple of Joe Maddon-style “American Legion” days, where they are encouraged to show up just a couple hours before game time and go play.
“It’s going to be a wild ride in a sense because of what’s going to be asked of us in a physical standpoint,’’ Kiermaier said. “It’s a lot of wear and tear on the body. It just feels like you’re at the field more than you’re home. You wake up and you’re like, ‘Oh, man, I’ve got to get ready to go hit 98 (mph) again.’ It just feels like you never get a break.
“There definitely will be times when you’re feeling really good, and there will be times when you have to trick yourself mentally: 'No, I’m good, I’m feeling good.’ ‘’
Sleep will be at a premium, especially with nine travel days in 40. So will time on the massage table, and in the hot and cold tubs. Coffee will be kept freshly brewed in the clubhhouse. Wives/girlfriends and family will have to be understanding.
The Rays will loop in their athletic trainers, strength and conditioning staff, nutritionists, mental skills specialist and others with the coaches and front office to decide what’s best.
“Everyone is aware of what’s ahead of us,’’ Cash said. “We want to make sure we’re doing enough to get our work in but getting enough rest to complement all of that because we’re going to be asking a lot of our players the next six weeks.’’
And the answers they provide will tell us all a lot.
Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.