BOSTON — Rays infielder Isaac Paredes was answering questions in the clubhouse after Sunday’s frustrating loss to the Blue Jays about hitting his 30th home run and closing in on 100 RBIs.
The conversation shifted, as it often does these days, to the predicament the Rays find themselves in heading toward the playoffs, most likely hosting a best-of-three wild-card series starting on Tuesday.
A recent wave of injuries has further depleted a lineup and pitching staff that has been operating without key pieces for much of the season. Three top starters have been lost for the year or more to elbow surgery, and the Rays’ best position player, shortstop Wander Franco, was sidelined indefinitely starting in mid-August due to legal and disciplinary matters.
Paredes acknowledged the “very difficult” challenge of making a last-ditch run at the American League East title and navigating the treacherous postseason field given the latest absences. They run from a likely season-ending kneecap fracture for second baseman Brandon Lowe to day-to-day muscle tightness for outfidler Randy Arozarena and first baseman and team MVP Yandy Diaz.
“I think,” Paredes said via team interpreter Manny Navarro, “we need to just make sure these young guys are going to do a good job of making up for it.”
Paredes is 24, and in his first full season in the majors. He smiled when the irony of the “young guys” comment was pointed out.
All the Rays really can do now is laugh, wait for the daily updates from head athletic trainer Joe Benge and hope the kids are all right.
At various times earlier this season, the Rays looked to Triple-A Durham for help, summoning infielders/outfielders Vidal Brujan and Jonathan Aranda, catcher Rene Pinto, plus a series of relievers who had previous time in the majors.
But as the injuries mounted and the Franco situation developed, they had to reach further — for players who were just getting their first experience at Triple A.
Starting pitcher Taj Bradley and infielders Curtis Mead and Osleivis Basabe — all of whom were 22 at the time — were called up to make their major-league debuts and got an opportunity to play somewhat regularly.
Then last week the Rays took an even bolder step, summoning 20-year-old infielder Junior Caminero, who soared up the industry prospect lists with a standout season split between Class A Bowling Green and Double-A Montgomery.
On Friday, opening a key late September series against the wild-card contending Blue Jays while still in hot pursuit of the division-leading Orioles, the Rays started a lineup that included Pinto at catcher, Mead at third, Basabe at short and Aranda at designated hitter.
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Manager Kevin Cash said the Rays have no choice but to make the best of the situation.
“These guys, they’re getting opportunities right now, and you’ve got to learn quick on the fly,” he said Saturday. “But you’re playing in big games right now; the Blue Jays are playing to get in (to the playoffs). So I’d like to think that all these at-bats, all these ground balls, all these reps are going to help them.
“And there’s no doubt we’re going to need their help. So I think our best thing we can do is get them as comfortable as possible and let them embrace the moment. And maybe some of the guys that have been there, whether it’s Yandy, some of the guys on our pitching staff, Randy, to help along with that. …
“All of them,” Cash continued, “we’re hoping for good things for.”
Who the Rays will need for the playoffs and how big a role they will play is still to be decided, shaped mostly by the day-to-day availability of Diaz (hamstring), Arozarena (quad) and reliever Robert Stephenson (neck), plus whether centerfielder Jose Siri (broken hand), outfielder/DH Luke Raley (cervical strain) and reliever Jason Adam (oblique) will be ready for the start, or any, of the postseason.
Mead and Bradley, acknowledging the circumstances, have noted how comforting it is to see so many familiar faces from Durham, guys they often talked and shared experiences with, now in the Rays clubhouse, creating something of a bond among them.
“Absolutely,” Mead said. “And speaking for myself, I definitely feel more comfortable with other people going through the same thing.”
Not to mention that the chance to play down the stretch, including the playoff-like intensity for the Sept. 14-17 series in Baltimore, and possibly in the postseason is exciting.
“It’s obviously unfortunate,” Mead said of the injuries. “The goal is to win, so it sucks having a few of your best players go down. But yeah, definitely a good opportunity for a few of us to play a little bit more and prove something ...
“I think to be able to get some high-pressure games in before the postseason for the younger guys, hopefully we can slow down the postseason a little bit for us, which would be nice.”
As much youth as the Rays have in the clubhouse, there are veterans, too, to provide needed mentorship.
Diaz has been part of the team for the franchise-record five straight postseason appearances, Arozarena and closer Pete Fairbanks for four. (Tyler Glasnow, Brandon Lowe and Colin Poche were part of the Rays’ 2019 playoff squad but missed time in subsequent years due to injury.)
Starter Zach Eflin was part of the Phillies team that reached the World Series last year, and reliever Chris Devenski went twice with the Astros, winning a ring in 2017. Reliever Jake Diekman has been to the playoffs with four teams.
Help can come in different forms.
Bradley said just watching Eflin pitch so calmly in frenzied Camden Yards on Sept. 15 was a master class in handling pressure.
“He just moved so melodic and smooth,” Bradley said. “His presence, it’s like as if he’s not there — you can’t read him or tell what he’s going to do next. If something bad happens, he has the same emotion. That’s what I want to take from him.”
Others will ask questions of the been-there, done-that group.
“Definitely happy we have those options to go talk to those guys,” said outfielder Josh Lowe, a 25-year-old who, like Paredes, is in his first full season. “I’m excited for (the playoffs), and I think everybody else is.”
Cash said the Rays have no choice but to make the best of who they have.
“Sometimes there’s a benefit of youth,” he said. “We’ve got a bunch of young players in here; they can jolt us with some energy, and we can finish up good. There’s a lot to be excited about with this club that we’ve done just a tremendous job of being resilient.
“We’ll be as tested as ever now with some of the guys that we’re losing.”
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