ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays schedule for the abbreviated 60-game season presents some obvious challenges competitively and logistically, starting with the July 24 opener at home against Toronto.
All 10 games against the Yankees in a 28-day span, six bookending a 16-games-in-16-days stretch. A three-city, 10-game, 11-day road trip. Eight games against two 2019 National League playoff teams. All but one trip on planes.
The degree of difficulty was already enhanced by Major League Baseball’s decision to limit teams to playing only opponents in their division and the corresponding geographical division in the other league, an effort to limit travel and thus exposure to coronavirus. This means 40 games against the typically tough American League East foes and 20 versus an imposing National League East group stocked with powerful pitching.
“Certainly in any given year one division seems to be ‘the powerhouse,' but I think it’s fair that the AL East is always a challenge and a grind of a division," Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “Now you’re adding the NL East to it, which has the World Series champs (in Washington) and the Atlanta Braves and other clubs that are very good."
In specific, it breaks down tough in many ways:
* The 10 games against each of the AL East teams are split over three series, and the Rays have two of those (covering six games) on the road against the Yankees (and the Orioles). Besides six games against the natural rival Marlins, the two NL East teams the Rays face four times (in home-and-home two game series) are the Braves and Nationals, who both made the playoffs last year. They play three games each against the Mets (road) and Phillies (home), both well-armed and potential contenders.
“They’ve got some good teams up there (in the NL East),” said Rays outfielder Hunter Renfroe, acquired from the NL Padres. “It’s tough. ... It’s going to be a heavy pitching league.”
* A stretch in August and early September will be critical, and potentially season deciding in several ways.
First, all 10 games against the AL favorite Yankees will be played between Aug. 6 and Sept. 2.
Second, the Rays have a vexing 10-game, 11-day road trip to face the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Yankees, and even more so given the health and safety restrictions under which they have to travel.
Third, the Yankees series at the end of that trip starts a 16 games in 16 day stretch that ends ... back at Yankee Stadium.
“Looking at it, it seems that Aug. 10-20 (trip) presents its challenges," Cash said. “I know there is an off-day squeezed in there, but under these circumstances, or under any circumstances, four games in Boston, three in Toronto and three in New York — that’s a handful. Hopefully we’ll be well equipped, well prepared and go in and play good because we’re going to have to.
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“You certainly understand with 60 games, a 10-day road trip can really throw you sideways if another team is playing really, really well at that time. A tough 10-game road trip.”
* The schedule was supposed to be designed to minimize travel, especially on planes, by having teams face nearby opponents. That plan obviously didn’t include the Rays as they have 10 road series split across five trips, and only one of those 15 legs can be made by train, from Baltimore to New York to face the Mets late September.
Also, they have to get on a plane for a two-game trip to Washington. And, as opposed to what used to be a treat, they have an off-day in New York, which just means more time in a hotel watching Netflix.
Overall, the Rays have the most travel of any team in either Central or East division, an estimated 10,939 miles per MLB. The Yankees, in contrast, have to go only 5,604 miles.
* With only 60 games instead of the usual 162, there will be an obvious emphasis on getting off to a good start.
That will be tougher for the Rays, as they play 27 of their first 30 games against teams expected to be at the least competitive, and potentially contenders in the Blue Jays, Braves, Red Sox and Yankees. Also, they play 39 games in the first 41 days of the season and then have four days off in the final 25.
* Also of note: The Rays do have 16 games against two likely last-place teams, with 10 versus Baltimore and six with Miami. ... The Rays moved their weekday home night games from 7:10 p.m. starts to 6:40 p.m. in an effort to have less late nights at the Trop, which at least to start the season won’t have any fans. Also, five of the six Saturday games are at 6:40 pm.
Clearly, the schedule seems tough for a Rays team expecting to contend.
Though Cash acknowledged they haven’t yet broken it down as much as normal given all the focus on health and safety protocols, including COVID-19 testing, they’re not going to complain.
“I really don’t think we look at the schedule under any circumstance and it’s even worth time complaining about it,” he said. “There really isn’t. That’s the schedule. We feel good with it. We know for us to be successful, no different than any season, you have to play well in your division, you have to beat the teams that you play the most of. That’s the way they’re aligned and we’re just going to have to find a way to compete really, really well.”