CHICAGO — As the Rays put the wraps on a fabulous first month of the season, they showed a lot to be encouraged about, most notably the depth of their pitching to cover another run of injuries, and the explosiveness of a dynamic and diverse offense that has led the majors in scoring and home runs.
But May will be more telling.
The Rays took advantage of what would be called, politely, an easy March/April schedule, rolling up a 23-5 record (through Saturday) against teams with a combined 89-128 record and .410 winning percentage.
Of the eight teams they have faced, four are in last place (A’s, Red Sox, Nationals and White Sox, who they have seen twice) and two others are struggling (Tigers and Reds). Only two have winning records, the Jays and Astros, and the Rays went 2-4 against them.
Starting Tuesday, the Rays step up considerably in class, with a 29-game run against teams with winning records (a composite 133-85, .610 mark) and, for just about all, legitimate postseason aspirations.
The lineup: Pirates, Yankees, at Orioles, at Yankees, at Mets, Brewers, Blue Jays, Dodgers, at Cubs.
“I think it’s fair to say most seasons there’s a point in your schedule that you look up and you really hope you’re healthy and you’re playing well at that time,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “You could make the argument that this upcoming month could be that time.”
Adding to the degree of difficulty, the Rays have only one day off in that stretch (in New York after playing the bullpen-draining Yankees seven times in 10 days) and take their lengthiest road trip of the season, a 10-game, 11-day visit to Baltimore and New York.
On the plus side, the Rays should get Tyler Glasnow back in the rotation by mid- to late May, assuming no setbacks in his rehab from a Feb. 27 oblique strain.
Also a factor: With the new schedule format reducing games against division opponents from 19 to 13 each (52 total rather than 76), there will be more of a premium when the Rays face the Yankees, Orioles, Jays and, in theory, Red Sox.
The May schedule looked tough enough before the Pirates, managed by former Rays hitting coach Derek Shelton, got off to surprising start (20-8 through Saturday). If not for the Rays’ historic and record-breaking run, they would be the biggest story in baseball. (And without much help from ex-Ray Ji-Man Choi, who is injured.) Plus, the Cubs have been better than expected. That the powerful Dodgers have the worst record of that group is also unusual, and likely to change.
“Competing in this division the way that we have, you’re going to play really good clubs often,” Rays baseball operations president Erik Neander said. “The schedule distribution is a little bit different this year.
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“But after we get through May, I think we’ll have played a wide enough assortment of clubs, some really strong clubs, certainly. As we look at the schedule in May, that should allow us to have a better sense for kind of where this group settles in after a few months.”
There are some other tough stretches for the Rays, including two treks to the west coast in June around a week at home, an Astros-Yankees trip at the July 31 trade deadline, and six of their last eight games against the Jays.
But May looks to be the toughest.
The big belt theory
The mystery of the belts hanging in the Rays’ Tropicana Field clubhouse has been explained.
Reliever Ryan Thompson fessed up as the person who had been hanging belts from ceiling hooks around the center console and in front of lockers. He added some after each home game in no discernible pattern, drawing shrugs from teammates who were baffled and politely taunting media who asked in an attempt to solve the riddle.
Thompson said he started the project randomly on opening day, noting a stack of extra purple belts to go with the Devil Rays jerseys and noticing the hooks and deciding “just out of the blue” to hang about 10. When the Rays won, some clubhouse staff asked if he was going to add more. Thompson decided they’d hang four for each win, the color relative to which jersey they wore that day. Some already hanging were tied together in V shapes during the games as rally starters.
“Unfortunately, it was nothing special,” Thompson said. “Next time there might be a better pattern or creative strategy. Maybe more performance-based so we can keep whatever we’ve got going going no matter if we have a random loss in there.”
Brandon Lowe was excited to hear that indie pop band AJR on May 19 will be playing the first of several postgame concerts the Rays are planning; he uses their Burn the House Down song as his walkup music. Even cooler would be for them to play it live, as Tantric once did at the Trop for Evan Longoria. … MLB Network Insider Jon Heyman on why Rays players haven’t got much national acclaim for their strong start: “They just don’t have any media.” Um, Jon? He also said “Wander Franco is one of the best players in the game. If you watch them every day you realize that. Most people don’t see them, but he is.” … J.P. Howell, the reliever whose 2012 27 1/3-inning scoreless streak was snapped by Pete Fairbanks, was a minor-league roommate and Royals teammate of pitching coach Kyle Snyder. ... Early-rising Rays on Thursday may have seen some familiar faces at their Chicago hotel. The Padres were also staying there before wrapping a series vs. the Cubs and have six former Rays major/minor leaguers: Jake Cronenworth, Nelson Cruz, Brent Honeywell (who is 2-0, 2.45 in 10 relief outings), Blake Snell, Brett Sullivan, Michael Wacha. … Former Rays manager Joe Maddon, who is moving back to Tampa at least part-time, told The Athletic’s Jayson Stark that he would be open to a front office job if the chance to manage again under his terms doesn’t materialize, but it would have to be a “meaty” role: “I’m not just out there to shake hands and sing the seventh-inning stretch.” ... The Rays officially launch the Randy Land seating area Friday, with the added bonus of Cinco de Mayo festivities and the Yankees in town. ... Players wearing Wander Franco Lumber Company Inc. T-shirts from rotowear.com in the clubhouse include Franco. … Add Marvin Hudson to the list of umpires referring to the Rays incorrectly as “Tampa” when announcing replay challenges.
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