BOSTON — The Rays have had a fairly easy time winning games through the first two months, their 40 Ws the most in the majors by a handful, putting them on a pace for a staggering 112 victories with seemingly legitimate championship potential.
Winning over skeptics has proved more challenging.
When the Rays won a modern era-record 13 straight games to open the season, their success was dismissed by some as a product of playing four lighter-weight teams, though two (Red Sox and Tigers) are now hovering around .500.
Then it was pitched (including by us) that their rugged May schedule, packed with projected contenders and only one off day, would potentially expose them. Instead, they proved their legitimacy, going 17-12.
“The press and people wanted to write it off as just an easy start … that it was a fluke or whatever,” reliever Jason Adam said. “We never thought that, but people did. So I think that we’ve shown that it wasn’t.”
So here the Rays are — despite injuries that sidelined three of their top pitchers (Pete Fairbanks, Drew Rasmussen, Jeffrey Springs) and delayed another (Tyler Glasnow) — more than one-third through the schedule and still the team with the best record (40-18) and a lesser amount of credit.
“Some people might still say we’re still a mediocre team, but if you look at the results, the results are out there,” said corner infielder, and cornerstone, Yandy Diaz, via team interpreter Manny Navarro.
“It’s everything. We’re pitching. We’re hitting. I think putting all that together makes us the best team in the league.”
With 104 games and four months left, there is a lot that can still go wrong. But the Rays feel pretty good about what they’ve done so far and where they’re headed.
“I don’t think we need to prove anything,” general manager Peter Bendix said. “We know that this is a really good team. We know that this is a really good division. We know we’re going to have to win a lot of games to win the division. But we’ve had confidence since Day One that this is an excellent team and we’re just playing up to our capabilities.”
So what do others think? We polled a panel of national writers, broadcasters and analysts — some on the Rays’ train and some still skeptical — with answers edited for brevity and clarity:
How “for real” are the Rays?
Ken Rosenthal, Fox Sports and The Athletic
The Rays are totally real. Anyone who doesn’t believe that is simply not paying attention. I’d like them even better if Rasmussen and/or Springs were still healthy, but Glasnow is back now. And the offense, while it probably won’t prove to be as good as it was in the first two months, is certainly better than many Rays offenses of the past.
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Buster Olney, ESPN
Back in April, our editors asked us to present a bold prediction, and mine was — is — that the Rays will go wire to wire. This required me to eat some crow, because I didn’t even pick them to make the playoffs at the start of the season. But it’s clear that their offense is better than we’ve ever seen from the Rays, with staying power. They remind me of the ‘21 Giants, because they have some excellent core stars and then a lot of guys who can do damage around them, which is reflected by all of the home runs.
Xavier Scruggs, ESPN and MLB Network
Anytime you have as good as a 1-2 punch as the Rays have in McClanahan and now Glasnow being healthy, plus the power they possess all throughout the lineup, they are a legitimately “for real.” The young players are performing and veterans aren’t showing age at all. They are clicking on all cylinders.
Dan O’Dowd, MLB Network
It’s always been a team for me that the sum of the parts were greater than the individual parts in how they deploy their talent and maximizing everyone’s potential. But this year, they just have got a lot of good individual parts.
Jayson Stark, The Athletic
Don’t people ask this every year? It happens every June. Father’s Day. The arrival of summer. And are the Rays for real? Of course, they’re for real. Just because they do this different doesn’t mean it’s not real. They lead the whole sport in steals, homers and OPS. They lead the sport in starting-pitching ERA. They have the best record in baseball against winning teams. And they’re top three in Defensive Runs Saved. So outside of some assorted bullpen mix-ups, what don’t they do well? And why would they stop doing any of it well? I don’t understand the skepticism, except for the usual reason: They’re the Rays!
Biggest concerns about Rays being legit championship contenders?
Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, MLB Network
They’re definitely going to make the postseason, but here are two things I’d keep an eye on. Their offense has been tremendous, but after last year’s debacle against Cleveland, I’ve got to see them deliver in a big October spot. And you always have to wonder about the bullpen. After a long year, what will be left in the tank in October.
The back end of the bullpen. Mainly the health of Fairbanks and Adam staying away from the long ball. I think it’s fair to say the back end of the bullpen was definitively a strength last season and they will need to duplicate that 100% if they are looking for a deep postseason run.
I only have one significant concern: Health. Especially in a season like this, when pitching injuries look like they’re headed for possibly the highest rate ever. It’s already amazing that they’ve lost Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs, and kept winning (and pitching) at this level. But you can only lose so many difference-making arms before it takes its toll. And where would they miss those arms most? In October, where those arms are the difference between parades and heartbreak.
Pitching injuries would be my concern. Glasnow is going to have a ceiling limit. As great as (Zach) Eflin has been, he’s had an injury history. (Rookie Taj) Bradley has got tremendous upside, but he’s a kid. With Fairbanks, I think the greatest predictor of future injuries are past, and he has had, it seems like, one after the other.
I do think you can figure out your bullpen like they have with (recent addition Jake) Diekman on the fly a little bit. They’re adept at doing that. But their starting rotation they probably are going to have to aggressively address over the next few months.
This is the first time I can tell you as a true baseball fan, when I look at the Rays I legitimately think they can win the World Series. Before I thought they could get into postseason, I just wasn’t sure about once they got in. I think this team has got all the pieces to actually win a World Series. So, man, I hope they do everything they can because I hope they realize that, too.
No organization withstands pitching injuries better than the Rays, but after losing Springs and Rasmussen and Fairbanks, you do kind of wonder how many hits they can take. And the staff that the Yankees are building reminds you a lot of what the Astros had in last year’s postseason, with a dominant bullpen.
Biggest concern is the bullpen, for reasons that seem fairly obvious — health, performance, etc. I also am worried about the depth of their rotation. Another injury or two would be problematic, for sure.
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