ST. PETERSBURG — With some of the Rays gathering Thursday for an optional workout at Tropicana Field, and the full group reuniting Friday night in Atlanta to start the second half of the season, they are relatively pleased where they are.
As a team, despite a slew of injuries.
And as a contender for a third straight playoff appearance.
Having played 56 percent of their schedule, the Rays open post All-Star break play with a 53-37 record. They are 1½ games behind the first-place Red Sox in the American League East, two games ahead of the A’s for the top wild-card slot and a 5½-game margin over the Mariners — yes, the Mariners — to make the five-team playoff field.
And they have history on their side, as 32 of the 34 teams that won 53 (or more) of their first 90 games made the playoffs since the second wild-card team was added in 2012.
“We’ve got to feel good about it,’' manager Kevin Cash said Thursday. “When we ended the first half, we said we’re very encouraged with the way the team came together out of (spring training), kind of went through a .500 spell and then really took off and got hot.
“We’re right where we need to be, right in the thick of things. And now let’s go play good baseball again for another half.’'
Much will determine if, and how well, they do, starting with keeping their key players healthy and getting a few breaks.
Here are five other potentially key factors:
Lowe, as in wow
For a guy who spent most of the season struggling, Brandon Lowe went into the All-Star break sizzling, hitting nine homers in his past 16 games, giving him 21 total, and on a pace for 38. Even though Lowe is still hitting only .208 and ranks third in the majors with 108 strikeouts, he is the player best positioned to lead the Rays the rest of the way. “He can singlehandedly carry this team,’' All-Star catcher Mike Zunino said. “You can see his at-bats getting better. You can see his confidence growing. He’s a huge part of this team in this lineup. And when you when you see him going good, we’re in a good spot.’'
Who’s coming in the door?
The Rays are confident in the team they have now. But they are also hoping to make it better as they go. The trade deadline is two weeks away (July 30), and unless Cash came home from the All-Star Game with the kind of proven starter (Kyle Gibson, Max Scherzer) or right-handed hitter (Kris Bryant, Nelson Cruz) they could use, there will be plenty of conversations. The starter seems more important, and the decisions general manager Erik Neander and staff make in terms of whom they want and what price they are willing to pay could be as crucial as anything else that happens. Related, the Rays have a chance to add impactful pitchers internally, if reliever Nick Anderson and starters Chris Archer and Tyler Glasnow recover from elbow injuries. Anderson and Archer are August possibilities, Glasnow in September.
Getting some relief
How the Rays improve their rotation is key. No matter what, they will rely heavily on their bullpen, more than any other team. Getting back injured relievers such as Ryan Thompson (in the next couple of weeks), then Anderson, Oliver Drake and maybe Archer in a bullpen role will help. But this group has been pretty good as it is, going into the break with a 22-inning scoreless streak and posting a 2.47 ERA since April 22, best in the majors. “You could argue of all facets of our game, they might be the most valuable the way they have pitched innings and just the quality with which they perform,’' Cash said.
Let’s make a date
The Rays seem to get a break in resuming play against the below-.500 Braves and Orioles, then the just-above Indians and Yankees, who — assuming their latest coronavirus outbreak is cleared up — will have played eight games against the Red Sox by then. Overall, the Rays have 29 of their remaining 72 games against the bottom-tier Orioles, Tigers, Twins and Marlins. But the Rays also have 13 games remaining against the Red Sox, plus three each with the AL’s other first-place teams, the White Sox and Astros. Of note, they finish the season on the road at Houston and the Yankees.
Who will step up?
It would be fairly easy to say rookie infielder Wander Franco is the key to the second half, given how the 20-year-old through his first 15 games has a .197 average, four extra-base hits and a .595 OPS. But it also would be unfair, similar to saying rookie lefty Shane McClanahan needs to step into a front-of-the-rotation role. But the guy they do need to do more is outfielder Randy Arozarena. His 2020 postseason performance set a bar that makes any reasonable showing pale, but a .253 average, 10 homers, 41 RBIs, 11 steals and a .733 OPS seems disappointing. Even more so since Arozarena hasn’t homered since June 17, and he has only a .167 average and .498 OPS over those 17 games.
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