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10 things we think we know about the American League-leading Rays

A lot of things are certainly going right for the Rays, who at 38-23 never seem to be out of any game.
Rays outfielder Brett Phillips reacts after throwing a ball to a fan before a game against the Texas Rangers on Sunday. Not that Phillips ever frowns much, but he and the Rays have had plenty to be happy about recently.
Rays outfielder Brett Phillips reacts after throwing a ball to a fan before a game against the Texas Rangers on Sunday. Not that Phillips ever frowns much, but he and the Rays have had plenty to be happy about recently. [ BRANDON WADE | AP ]
Published Jun. 7
Updated Jun. 7

ST. PETERBSURG — The Rays are pretty good.

That’s not deep analysis, obviously, but it’s also not something we necessarily expected to be saying after they started the season 5-8 and spent the first six weeks hovering around .500 — right on it 10 times through their first 38 games.

They followed that sluggish start with a remarkable run, winning 11 in a row, 16-of-17 and 19-of-23, which got them to Monday at 38-23, the best record in the American League and mere percentage points behind the 37-22 Giants for tops overall. They also have the top spot in MLB.com’s power rankings.

Realistically, the Rays are somewhere between the team that was 19-19 on May 12 and 19-4 since. The next four months will pinpoint the “where” more.

Here are 10 things we think we know:

Their pace is pretty impressive.

Kevin Kiermaier is congratulated by teammates after scoring on a two-RBI single hit by Austin Meadows during the ninth inning June 6.
Kevin Kiermaier is congratulated by teammates after scoring on a two-RBI single hit by Austin Meadows during the ninth inning June 6. [ BRANDON WADE | Associated Press ]

When the Rays finished 2020 with an AL-best 40-20 record that projected to a flashy 104-58 over a full season, their performance was discounted because of the abbreviated schedule. Their 38-23 record through 61 games projects to an almost as impressive 101-61.

As is their recent past.

Astros catcher Martin Maldonado, left, looks away as the Rays' Randy Arozarena (56) and Austin Meadows, right, celebrate Meadows' three-run home run during the fifth inning of a May 2 game.
Astros catcher Martin Maldonado, left, looks away as the Rays' Randy Arozarena (56) and Austin Meadows, right, celebrate Meadows' three-run home run during the fifth inning of a May 2 game. [ STEVE NESIUS | Associated Press ]

Since the start of the 2019 season, the Rays are 174-109, their .615 winning percentage ranking as the best in the American League (with the Astros next at 169-112, .601; then the A’s at 168-115, .594) and trailing only the Dodgers (183-98, .651).

They don’t quit.

Brett Phillips celebrates in front of the dugout after scoring against the Blue Jays on May 23.
Brett Phillips celebrates in front of the dugout after scoring against the Blue Jays on May 23. [ MENGSHIN LIN | Times ]

During the 19-4 run, the Rays came from behind to win eight times, overcoming multi-run deficits five times. (Plus another when they blew 5-0 and 7-5 leads.)

They keep it close.

Joey Wendle puts a tag on Oakland's Ramón Laureano, who was  trying to steal third base during an April 29 game.
Joey Wendle puts a tag on Oakland's Ramón Laureano, who was trying to steal third base during an April 29 game. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | Times ]

Those last four losses are by a total of five runs. Since April 16, they are 33-16, and 14 of those were by one or two runs. They haven’t lost by more than two runs since May 8, a 26-game run that is longest in the AL. Overall, they are 18-15 in games decided by two or fewer, though only 7-10 in one-run game.

Meadows powers them.

Brandon Lowe (8) celebrates at home with Austin Meadows (17) after Meadows' home run scored Lowe during a May 27 game.
Brandon Lowe (8) celebrates at home with Austin Meadows (17) after Meadows' home run scored Lowe during a May 27 game. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

No one player is responsible for the Rays’ recent run, but outfielder/DH Austin Meadows is the closest. Over his last seven games, he has three homers and 12 RBIs. Over a 10-game hitting streak, he has a .395 average (15-for-38), five homers, 19 RBIs and a 1.372 OPS.

Over his 21 games since the Rays started their recent run, he has a .329 average, seven homers, 31 RBIs and a 1.106 OPS. For the season (through Sunday), he is hitting .248 with an .883 OPS, tied for the AL lead with 48 RBIs and ranking among the leaders in doubles (16, second), homers (14, sixth), extra-base hits (31, second) and slugging percentage (.533, 10th).

Add things up.

Centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier makes a leaping catch on a fly out by the Royals' Andrew Benintendi during the eighth inning of a May 25 game.
Centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier makes a leaping catch on a fly out by the Royals' Andrew Benintendi during the eighth inning of a May 25 game. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | Associated Press ]

While the focus was on the struggling offense, there was another reason the Rays were 19-19 through May 12: They weren’t playing their usual game, which is keyed around run prevention. In those first 38 games, their run differential was minus-2, giving up 156 and scoring 154. In the 23 games since, they are plus-77, giving up 71 and scoring 148. For the season, plus-75.

Their All-Star selections should be interesting.

Relief pitcher Andrew Kittredge throws during a June 6 game against the Rangers.
Relief pitcher Andrew Kittredge throws during a June 6 game against the Rangers. [ BRANDON WADE | Associated Press ]

Though Rays manager Kevin Cash and his staff are running the show, they won’t have much say over the All-Star roster since most spots are filled by fan and player votes. The leading Rays candidates currently are Austin Meadows and starter Tyler Glasnow (just think if the game was in Pittsburgh), though Rich Hill is pitching his way into the discussion.

Others who could be in the conversation, especially if Cash does get to fill out the roster (or have input on naming replacements): infielder Joey Wendle, catcher Mike Zunino and reliever Andrew Kittredge.

They’ve made their pitch.

Rays relief pitcher Diego Castillo is on the mound during the eighth inning of a May 29 game against the Phillies.
Rays relief pitcher Diego Castillo is on the mound during the eighth inning of a May 29 game against the Phillies. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | Associated Press ]

Despite a slew of injuries and resulting roster moves, the Rays got back to where they usually are, among the AL’s best pitching staffs with a 3.38 ERA that ranks second behind the White Sox, and a league-most 36 games allowing three or fewer runs (28-6). Most impressively, since May 14, when Diego Castillo came off the injured list to rejoin Pete Fairbanks in high-leverage duty, their bullpen has an AL-low 2.16 ERA.

And a case for defense.

Rays shortstop Taylor Walls (6) catches a toss from second baseman Brandon Lowe (8) to force out the Rangers' Nick Solak at second base on June 4.
Rays shortstop Taylor Walls (6) catches a toss from second baseman Brandon Lowe (8) to force out the Rangers' Nick Solak at second base on June 4. [ ANDY JACOBSOHN | Associated Press ]

The Rays work hard and pride themselves on their defense, which obviously makes their pitching staff better. After a shaky start, they have been superb, by various measures. Per Sports Info Solutions, they lead the majors with 47 defensive runs saved, well ahead of the second-place Mets and Padres (35); tops in the outfield (18) and second in the infield, including a majors-most 13 due to shifts.

Too much breeze.

Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe strikes out during a May 12 game against the Yankees.
Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe strikes out during a May 12 game against the Yankees. [ MENGSHIN LIN | Times ]

For all the Rays have done better offensively, ranking third in the majors through Sunday with 302 runs, they still have their flaws. Like ranking 22nd with a .229 team average and, more concerning, striking out a majors-most (at a record-setting pace) 646 times, including 10 or more times in 43 of 61 games. The biggest offenders are two of their key offensive players: Brandon Lowe, 73 (fourth most in the AL), and Randy Arozarena, 72 (fifth).

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