ST. PETERSBURG — One thing we can definitively say about the 2020 season after 10 days of Rays games is that it is different.
Coronavirus precautions and protocols affect just about every aspect of a player’s routine. League rules and game schedules are changed on the fly. Workload concerns and injury issues are daily conversations (and big problems elsewhere). Celebrations and emotions are muted. Losses are magnified in a 60-game season. Distractions grow daily, with reports of positive tests and potential outbreaks on other teams, and threats by the commissioner to shut down play.
“This is a very fluid situation,” veteran starter Charlie Morton said Sunday via a Zoom video call from Baltimore. “It’s hard for people to accept that, I think, because we’re so used to working and operating in a certain paradigm. But it’s just the reality of it. To make this work, we’re going to have to be flexible, we’re going to have to be fluid.”
Evaluating their play on the field requires some flexibility, as well. After winning four of their first five games, the Rays looked very much like a team expected to contend for a title. After losing five straight heading into Tuesday’s game against Boston, they look very much a mess, hoping Monday’s off day provides a re-set.
Here are three things we think we know.
1. Rays are still adapting to the new normal
Tangibly and intangibly, the game is not being played with the same spirit.
Players are balancing serious health and safety concerns while trying to focus on the next pitch. And properly placed restrictions on team interactions and celebrations — enhanced by a strict no-contact rule the Rays implemented last week — have clearly taken some of the joy out of how they play.
Manager Kevin Cash noted after Sunday’s loss how they’re not being themselves, and several players acknowledged the difference and lack of fun.
The challenge now is to find some middle ground, to find the energy in empty stadiums and the emotion from teammates doing well without the high-fives or hugs.
“We’re asking people, and myself included, to do something, to break habits for umpteen, 20 years, whatever it is,” Cash said. “It’s not easy to do.”
Nor is processing all the serious issues that seem to come up almost daily, which included what Cash called “quite the learning experience” of their first road trip.
Catcher Mike Zunino said keeping up and weighing what’s right individually is a mental grind and “just sort of plays on emotions” for players.
“Baseball is hard already,” shortstop Willy Adames said. “There’s a lot of stuff going on right now I don’t want to pay attention to it. That’s my mentality. I wish everybody (would) think like that. It’s hard already (playing). ... I don’t want to put extra stuff in my head.”
2. Poor defense has been the biggest surprise, but inconsistent offense may be the bigger concern
To win with a pitching-first plan, the Rays have to make just about all the routine plays and a few spectacular ones, and they have the personnel to do so.
So while the 11 errors — second-most in the majors — plus some misplays and missed plays have made for a rough start, it’s something they should be able to be address.
The lack of reps from the abbreviated Spring 2.0 training could be part of it. Sometimes it takes a more forceful reminder, as Zunino referenced from a team meeting last spring, to pay more attention to detail.
But the talent the Rays have on the field is too good to look this bad.
Adames’ four errors match the most in the majors. Ji-Man Choi’s three lead all first basemen. Zunino’s three passed balls are also tops.
“I feel like maybe we have to focus a little bit more,” Adames said. “I’ve been making some errors that shouldn’t happen. It’s part of the game. We’ve got to cut it off. We’ve got to clear our mind, come (each day) with the right mindset and get back to normal, get back to the defense we know we have.”
What kind of offense the Rays have is a bigger question.
After the first five games at home, it looked dynamic. They ranked at or near the top of the league with 33 runs, 20 extra-base hits, 27 walks an .818 OPS and 16 two-out runs.
But in five straight losses on the road the Rays looked dreadful, scoring only 13 runs total against the Braves, who have good pitchers, and the Orioles.
Overall, Zunino is hitting .087 (2-for-23), Choi .167 (4-for-24), Yandy Diaz .167 (5-for-30). Of the new additions, Manuel Margot is hitting .100 (3-for-30), Hunter Renfroe .182 (6-for-33), Yoshi Tsutsugo .200 (6-for-30), Jose Martinez .259 (7-for-27, with 11 strikeouts).
They’ve been particularly impotent early, scoring only one of their 46 runs in the first or second inning and, related, have fallen behind in eight of the 10 games.
Getting back Austin Meadows sometime this week as he completes post-COVID-19 workouts should help, as he was a catalyst at the top of the order last year. Cash, naturally, is confident they will come around.
3. The expanded playoff field may be a very good thing
The Rays went into the season confident they were among the top five teams in the American League, with a chance to beat out the Yankees for the East title over the 60-game season.
Ten days in, that looms as a much tougher challenge. While the Rays were losing five straight (the equivalent of 13 in a 162-game season), the Yankees have surged, winning seven of their first eight and taking a four-game lead over the Rays, who at 4-6 stand 10th in the league.
Cause for concern? Depends.
Renfroe: “It’s so early, there’s no need to panic necessarily just yet, even though it is 60 games.”
Adames: “It’s just 60 games. We cannot let that happen. We cannot go on a losing streak for too many games, because there’s not a lot of games to come back.”
According to calculations on fangraphs.com, the Rays’ chances of winning the division dropped from 34.3 on opening day to 15. With the playoff field expanded from five teams per league to eight, they still have an 81-percent chance of making it.