ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays like where they are.
With 100 games down and 62 to go and despite a list of injured players that includes their best reliever and top starter plus a dozen others, they have a shiny 60-40 record, hold a firm grasp on a wild-card berth and sit one game back in the American League East.
“With or without injuries, we’re doing good things, we’re playing well,” manager Kevin Cash said. “The guys, they just come with such good energy. They bring the energy constantly. It helps that they’re winning games. It’s easy to have that energy while you’re winning. But, yes, we’re very pleased where we’re at at this point in this season.”
And now things are about to get really interesting.
The Rays on Tuesday open, at least to date, their biggest homestand of the season, hosting their two most-rabid rivals, the Yankees and Red Sox.
“Obviously, two big series coming up,” said starter Shane McClanahan, who faces the Yankees Tuesday and the Red Sox Sunday. “We’re excited for that. That’s why you play the games, for these meaningful series.”
The Rays are between the teams in the standings, a hefty eight games ahead of the Yankees and one behind the division-leading Red Sox, pending Boston’s Monday result against Toronto.
“Playing in-division rivals/opponents is always huge, especially when we’re all kind of chasing each other,” said centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier. “We know what the standings are and we’re aware of all that. So it’s going to be a very important week for us.
“ ... But we rise to the occasion, we get a little bit more amped up for these type of games. And that’s what it’s all about. So knowing that, I know our guys are motivated, I know we’re ready to go. And these are things that excite you.”
Here are five reasons this week matters:
Seeing lots of red
The Rays are at different stages of their seasons with their AL East rivals. They’ve already played the 51-47 Yankees 13 times (winning eight), and after the Tuesday-Thursday games won’t meet them again until the final weekend of the season in New York. Who knows if those games will matter. And to which team. But they are going to be seeing red quite a bit over the next six weeks. Having faced Boston only six times (and losing four), the Rays beginning Friday play 13 of their next 37 games — yes, nearly one-third — against the 61-39 Red Sox. That doesn’t mean the division race will be settled when they meet for the last time on Sept. 8. But it could go a long way toward shaping the final 3½ weeks of the season.
Trade deadline effect
The Rays have already made two big moves, getting veteran designated hitter Nelson Cruz and trading starter Rich Hill. They are open to adding a starter and are believed to be looking at both big and lesser names leading up to Friday’s 4 p.m. deadline. (There is also at least the question, especially after taking on $5 million in the Cruz deal, of whether they will seek to move Kiermaier, who makes a team-high $11.5 million, plus $12 million for 2022 and, at least, a $2.5 million buyout of a $13 million 2023 option.) Will their pre-emptive actions cause a reaction by the Yankees and/or Red Sox? (And wouldn’t that be something if it did?) Could a Rays’ sweep of the Yankees, who are nine games back in the AL East and 3½ out of a wild-card spot with Seattle in front of them, flip them from buyers to sellers?
The Nelson Cruz impact
Acquiring Cruz provided an immediate jolt of energy to the clubhouse and a boost to the team’s confidence knowing their bosses are willing to help. “From a player standpoint, it gets you so excited, because the front office is on board, management, everyone,” Kiermaier said. “We’re going for it. We’re trying to be the best team we can possibly be with a trade like that. He’s just the guy who’s going to make all of us better.” Will that excitement spread to the fan base? The Rays have only drawn more than 13,000 fans once in 19 home dates since expanding Tropicana Field capacity to 20,000 in June. Will having Cruz, a DH, help? The Rays seem to be hoping, such as offering Cruz T-shirts to all fans Friday and an online “Nelson Cruz Ticket Special” for the ESPN Sunday Night Baseball game, with lower reserved and party deck tickets priced at $23 for his uniform number.
How about those Devil Rays?
Local fans know the Rays are good, that they’ve made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons — reaching the World Series last year — and six times in the last 14. But there are still some identity issues nationally. As evidence, Sunday’s game on ESPN will be their first appearance on Sunday Night Baseball since 2014 and first from Tropicana Field since 2011. “I always tell the guys, ‘Hey, fellas, if we keep playing good, more things are going to keep coming our way,’” Kiermaier said. “So now we get to play on prime time against another really good team. And that’s what it’s all about. Just trying to make a name for ourselves and let everyone else see our talents out there and see what kind of team we are, even though we still don’t have too many household names. I always say that. But, boy, we know how to play, we know how to win.”
Home sweet Trop
Several Rays said in Cleveland over the weekend they were looking forward to getting home and settling in. The nine-game stretch, with a day off at the back end, will be the longest they’ve been in one place since a 10-day stand in late April/early May. Between players and staff who traveled to the All-Star Game and those who went home for the break, it’s been a hectic two weeks, St. Pete to Denver/home to St. Pete to Atlanta to St. Pete to Cleveland to St. Pete. “It’s been a lot of travel here lately,” Cash said. “Kind of some unique travel and short stints at home. I think the guys are excited to get back home, and we know that the energy will be good at the Trop playing those two teams.”
• • •
Sign up for the Rays Report weekly newsletter to get fresh perspectives on the Tampa Bay Rays and the rest of the majors from sports columnist John Romano.