The difference in results between the Rays’ first two trips could not have been more stark.
In the first jaunt to Atlanta and Baltimore, they couldn’t do anything right, losing all five and looking bad in doing so.
On the just-completed journey to Boston; Buffalo, N.Y. (temporary home of the Blue Jays); and New York they didn’t do much wrong, rolling to a franchise-best-tying 9-1 record and returning home leading the American League East.
There were some obvious reasons, most glaringly the offensive explosion, scoring a staggering 42 runs in the four-game sweep of the Red Sox and 76 over the 10 games.
But there was something else, too. Less tangible, but maybe more important.
The Rays were more relaxed, more familiar and more comfortable with the myriad coronavirus health and safety protocols. The rules that restricted them from leaving the hotels or eating out. That limited what they could do at the ballparks, how they could celebrate good moments during games and wins after.
“The first road trip, because of the situation there were a lot of rules, a lot of new rules,” shortstop Willy Adames said. “Everybody was like, ‘I don’t know what to do.’”
“This whole thing has been new for all of us,” reliever Nick Anderson said. “The first trip, not that everybody was on edge a little bit, but kind of testing the waters, seeing how everything works.”
When they got to Boston to start the second trip, several Rays noticed a significant change in attitude. There was no team meeting, no fiery Lou Piniella-type speech from manager Kevin Cash. Just a better understanding of knowing what to expect and how better to handle it. To be fair, taking three of four from the Yankees before they left helped their mood, too.
“You can see it,” Adames said. “You can see it in everybody’s body language that everybody is feeling more comfortable now. Everybody is getting used to the situation. … In the beginning of the (first) road trip, I think everybody was feeling, like, tense, pressure.
“Right now, I think everybody is just feeling good, just having fun and enjoying the game. I think that’s been the key. I think we’re getting that chemistry back in the clubhouse.”
The chemistry, the camaraderie, the casual environment are big parts of the formula for success for the Rays, especially this relatively young group, which plays on energy and enthusiasm and isn’t shy about public displays of affection. Finding a way to do so still, whether with air hugs, gloved fist bumps or other adaptations, has helped.
“We’re social creatures,” reliever Jalen Beeks said. “Especially this baseball team. We have very social creatures on this team. And (we’re) sitting in our rooms all day by ourselves. We’d like to give each other hugs and high fives; we’re not allowed to do that anymore. I’m not saying that was the reason (for the 0-5 first trip), but I think that loosening up and finding other ways to do those things within the protocols was big.”
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The Rays haven’t gone too far. There is some noticeable yelling from the players not in the game, but no organized dugout cheering or bullpen dance routines as some teams have adopted. Not yet, anyway. (”We’re all athletes, we can move a little bit,” Anderson said.)
Cash isn’t one for excuses, saying they lost the five games because they didn’t play well and they won nine of 10 because they played better.
But he did acknowledge during the second trip there were some differences.
“The energy has been good,” Cash said. “I think when we first started the celebrations, there was, ‘What’s right? What’s not right?’ And I don’t know if any of us still know.
“But the guys have embraced what we’re trying to accomplish, keeping them safe and keeping each other safe. But they are doing it with a pretty fun-natured way and hopefully they continue, because we feed off the energy that we create. And without having fans in the stands, you’ve got to create that much more. It’s good that we have a bunch of personalities that are capable of doing that.”
All of which allowed them to play, and act, more like they did in days before the pandemic.
“You just kind of get used to a little bit more,” Anderson said. “Kind of get back into the baseball swing of things. Just try and create normalcy at the field, or on the field, and acting like it’s a normal game and we don’t have this corona situation.”
* Making a trade by the Aug. 31 deadline to add pitching depth — with eight pitchers on the injured list; four already declared out for the season — makes a lot of sense. But giving up a quality prospect or two, especially for a one-year rental, might not make much sense with the possibility the season could be disrupted, or even cancelled, due to additional COVID-19 outbreaks.
* Postponement of the weekend Subway Series due to the possibility of additional COVID-19 infections among the Mets after two positive tests will stack up three games the Yankees will have to make up over the next few weeks. But there is a short-term benefit as some of their injured players will heal during the unscheduled off days and not miss any games.
A second batch of fan cutouts were installed at the Trop, including always ebullient Dick Vitale and friends at his usual seats near by the visitors dugout. More are coming, including Wade Boggs and Dan Johnson in the seats where their historic homers landed. … Blake Snell’s tale of yelling, “You suck” at himself before warming up at Yankee Stadium to make up for the absence of heckling fans was something. Snell has been doing some of the Rays’ most entertaining Zoom room interviews. … Brandon Lowe’s nine homers in 27 team games extrapolates to 54 for a full season. … The Athletic’s Jim Bowden’s suggested trade for the Rays: getting lefty reliever Tyler Alexander from Detroit for righty John Curtiss and a player to be named. … In his ongoing efforts to build and maintain arm strength, infielder Joey Wendle has consulted several pitchers and pitching coach Kyle Snyder for tips. … Independent filmmaker Scott Diener is working on a documentary about the dramatics of the Chicago-style, last-second 1988 stadium deal that foiled a planned White Sox move to St. Petersburg. … Ex-Rays great Evan Longoria hit his 300th career homer on Friday, the 150th player in major-league history to reach that milestone. ... Ken Davidoff, writing in the New York Post, called the Rays “the gum you can’t get off your shoe, the hiccup you can’t stop, the annoying high school classmate who tracks you down no matter how many times you change your number.” …. For those who have been asking/tweeting, still don’t see a scenario where top prospect Wander Franco gets called up this season. ... Three ex-Rays are noted in Baseball America’s Rookie of the Year update: Jake Cronenworth (Padres) as the NL favorite, Nick Solak (Rangers) and Cole Sulser (Orioles) among five AL candidates. ... A virtual Running with the Rays 5K event is being held, with the $30 and $50 registration fees benefitting team charities. See raysbaseball.com/5k . ... Former Rays outfield prospect Jesus Sanchez, traded with Ryne Stanek to the Marlins for Nick Anderson and Trevor Richards in July 2019, was called up Friday.