ST. PETERSBURG — For half the season, the Rays had a decent little offense. Sure, Willy Adames was underachieving early on and Ji-Man Choi was in and out of the lineup, but the Rays were putting up enough runs to be lurking 4.5 games behind Boston in the American League East by the time night had fallen on the Fourth of July.
That’s when things got a little funky. Soon, home runs began flying out of the park and the Rays began scoring runs at a freakishly high pace. They went from averaging 4.8 runs per night through the season’s first 84 games, to 6.2 runs in the next 38 games. Tampa Bay blew past Boston in the standings and went into this weekend with the No. 2 run-scoring offense in the majors.
Which begs the question: Has this lineup matured into the best offense the Rays have ever had, or have the last two months been a happy illusion?
Either answer is acceptable, it just depends on which evidence you want to cite.
You can point to Nelson Cruz’s arrival and Mike Zunino’s revival, and say the Rays are punishing the ball like never before. You can surmise that MLB’s crackdown on pitchers using illegal substances had an effect and the Rays have taken advantage.
Or you can point out that the underlying statistics suggest this level of scoring is unsustainable and probably heading toward a crash. That no team since the 1962 Dodgers has had an OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) as low as .740 and still averaged more than five runs per game, as the Rays are doing.
The truth is likely somewhere in between. A lot of Tampa Bay’s recent success can be attributed to 10 recent games against the Orioles, as well as a fortuitous knack for hitting home runs with men on base. But it’s also true the Rays could have three players (Cruz, Zunino and Brandon Lowe) with 30 or more home runs, and a lineup that draws a ton of walks and forces opponents to overuse their bullpens.
Other than Cruz, the lineup might lack star power but the Rays utilize platoons as well as any team in the league. So it ends up looking less imposing than the Yankees with Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton or the Blue Jays with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, but recent results say Tampa Bay is the more prolific offense.
“It’s awesome. I think Nelly was that spark we were missing,” pitcher Shane McClanahan said. “If one guy doesn’t do it one day, somebody will step up the next. It’s like a revolving door. These last couple of weeks I think you’ve seen everybody click, it’s been a lot of fun.”
At this point, the Rays are on pace to set a franchise record for scoring in a season so you could make an argument that Tampa Bay has never seen an offense so diverse and well-rounded. But that’s a theoretical argument for another day.
The real issue is whether this lineup is better suited for the postseason.
Fans have fixated on Blake Snell’s quick departure from Game 6 of the World Series last fall, but the truth is the Rays scored two runs or fewer in their final three losses against the Dodgers. The year before that, they scored one, one and two runs in their three losses to Houston in the American League Division Series. The Rays have always succeeded with run prevention, and they’ve always fallen due to offensive shortcomings.
And that makes the coming months difficult to predict. On the one hand, the current lineup has a lot in common with the 2020 team. But Zunino, Yandy Diaz and Brett Phillips are all having career years in terms of power production. Lowe struggled for the first few months, but is getting hot at the right time, and Austin Meadows is closer to his 2019 All-Star season than his lost 2020 campaign.
So are the Rays in better shape heading into September — and potentially October — than they were last season?
Do the additions of Cruz, Wander Franco and Francisco Mejia make Tampa Bay a more dangerous lineup than the team that went 40-20 in a shortened regular season, then came within two victories of winning the World Series?
“It’s different, I don’t know that I would say it’s better. It’s a different hitting club, certainly with the addition of Nelson Cruz,” manager Kevin Cash said. “You know what? Probably so. I mean we were battling injuries between Yandy, between Meadows, between Ji-Man there at the end of last year. Where these guys are in stride right now and are healthy. So I think that’s fair to say.”
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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