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The real Hit Show? These Rays rank among majors’ most offensive

There’s some oddities in runs coming late in games, on the road and in bunches, but they all count as the Rays are one of the top-scoring teams.
Mike Zunino celebrates his home run with Brandon Lowe during an Aug. 4 game against Seattle at Tropicana Field.
Mike Zunino celebrates his home run with Brandon Lowe during an Aug. 4 game against Seattle at Tropicana Field. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]
Published Aug. 9, 2021
Updated Aug. 9, 2021

BOSTON — The Rays are always going to be about pitching and defense.

Former manager Joe Maddon used to say it was in their DNA. Veteran centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier calls it “the backbone” to any success they have.

So what to make of all these big numbers being put up by their offense?

The 570 runs through Sunday ranked fourth in the majors — and second, by one, among American League teams — trailing the Astros, Dodgers and Blue Jays.

The Rays’ 147 homers rank fourth in the American League and eighth overall.

Are they now the Bay Bombers? Mottola’s Mashers?

Or, given their recent predilection for all things Devil Rays, a reincarnated version of the miserably failed 2000 Hit Show?

“I think our offense to date has outperformed what a lot of people would have penciled us in for,” manager Kevin Cash said. “This has been a very productive offense. Saying that, don’t want to get away … from pitching and defense. The offense is just kind of an added bonus. And we’ve seemed to be in a really good spot (recently).”

That “added bonus” is a big reason the Rays are where they are, holding a four-game AL East lead over the Red Sox, against whom they open a three-game series Tuesday at Fenway Park.

Nelson Cruz has certainly delivered with his bat since joining the Rays this season.
Nelson Cruz has certainly delivered with his bat since joining the Rays this season. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

But it’s interesting to break down how they get there, given the seemingly consistent inconsistency.

The Rays walk a lot, their 417 free passes ranking second most in the AL (and sixth overall), and their related .317 on-base percentage sixth best in the AL (tied for 14th overall).

But they don’t hit for much average, their .235 tied for 11th in the AL (and 22nd overall). They strike out a ton, leading the majors with 1,116, an average of nearly 10 per game. And they don’t hit well with runners in scoring position, their .240 average overall ranking 12th (and tied for 22nd) and their .222 with RISP and two outs 10th (and tied for 19th).

No team in modern major-league history has finished a season with the Rays’ 5.09 runs per game and as low of an average as they have.

So how have they done it?

By scoring big when they get to play outside the Trop, leading the majors in road runs, with 310, and ranking second (to the Giants) in home runs, with 81. At home they rank 11th with 260 runs and 18th with 66 homers.

By scoring in bunches, posting 10 or more runs 11 times (fifth most in the majors), including Friday and Saturday in Baltimore.

By having a mix of offensive weapons, with power (one of five teams to have at least three players with 20 homers; Brandon Lowe, Austin Meadows, Mike Zunino), experience (especially after adding Nelson Cruz), patience (Ji-Man Choi, Yandy Diaz), youth (led by Wander Franco) and a plethora of platoon advantages.

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And, perhaps most distinctively, by scoring late, with 215 of those 571 runs — nearly 40 percent — coming from the seventh inning on.

What makes that matter so much is the work of their pitchers, basically their AL-best relief crew, as they not only have scored the most runs in the majors from the seventh inning on, but have the best run differential at plus 90.

It’s no coincidence they have a majors-most 35 come-from behind wins.

Brett Phillips celebrates Brandon Lowe’s two-run home run against the Red Sox at Tropicana Field on Aug. 1.
Brett Phillips celebrates Brandon Lowe’s two-run home run against the Red Sox at Tropicana Field on Aug. 1. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

Why are they better as they get deeper in games?

“For whatever reason, guys find a rhythm later in the game and grind the at-bats out,” hitting coach Chad Mottola said. “If we had the remedy we’d do it from the first inning on.”

There are theories, some more serious than others:

Because they’ve faced better starting pitchers than relievers?

Because their coaching and advanced data allows for better in-game adjustments?

Because they wear down pitchers, physically and mentally by spoiling a lot of pitches early, specifically Choi and Diaz, and thus are better positioned for the later success?

Because Mottola’s pre-game instructions and motivational speeches are hard to process? (“Maybe,” he joked, “it takes five innings for my message to resonate or whatever.”)

Because they’ve lulled themselves into being confident that they can always come back?

Because Cash’s desire to construct lineups to be tougher for opponents to match up relievers against somehow makes it easier for opposing starters?

“I can’t pinpoint a reason why,” Cash said. “We’ll take it. We’ll take runs however we can get them. ...

“If they come in the first three innings, the middle three or the last three, they’re all runs. It seems like we’re in a lot of ballgames. And if we’re down, we’ve shown the ability throughout the course of the season to come from behind and come back and put some big numbers on the scoreboard.”

Bigger than you’d think.

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