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Rays

Rays first half: Ups and (mostly) downs

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Published:   |   Updated: July 17, 2014 at 08:17 AM

Are the Rays a contender or a seller?

Contender
21%
Seller
62%
Not sure
17%

Total Votes: 42

— The Tampa Bay Rays held the A's to one hit on May 21 and lost. They lost a game at Chicago on a walk-off home run and a game in Toronto on a throwing error on a bunt.

They followed a three-game sweep of the Red Sox at Tropicana Field with a 10-game losing streak.

They also managed to win three games in the span of 36 hours that included a day/night doubleheader sweep of the Red Sox in Boston and a 14-inning victory against the Yankees in the Bronx the next night.

It was that kind of first half for the Rays, with the downs outnumbering the ups.

While saddled with a losing record and fighting the Red Sox to stay out of the AL East cellar, the Rays rolled into the All-Star break with 13 wins in their final 18 games.

The pitching seems to be in order. The defense is back to playing at Rays standards. Now if the offense can only hit?

The past four weeks or so is what the Rays envisioned their season would look like when they broke spring training with lofty expectations. What came before that is what pitcher Alex Cobb called, “the worst-case scenario,” and it leaves the Rays in the hazy area of maybe a contender, maybe a seller as the second half of the season begins Friday in Minnesota.

***

MVP

You can make a case for LHP David Price, who is at the top of his game and the lone Ray selected for the All-Star Game. You can argue for RF Kevin Kiermaier, who has been a key piece to the offense during its first prolonged run of success.

But the first-half MVP of this team is LHP Jake McGee, who proved he is no longer a lefty specialist.

With his high-90s fastball that he throws to all four quadrants of the plate, McGee has held teams scoreless in 41 of his 45 appearances. He has stranded 25 of his 27 inherited runners, making him the closest thing to a sure bet on this team.

McGee has also shown he has the mentality to be a closer. His seven saves have come during his last 13 appearances, making him the go-to guy in Joe Maddon's closer-by-committee.

McGee is still capable of picking up the last four outs in one game and coming in the next game to retire a left-hander and get his team out of a jam, which makes him a valuable piece in the bullpen.

The Rays, Price especially, were disappointed that McGee was not selected for the All-Star Game.

Pleasant Surprise

RF Kevin Kiermaier plays as if his hair is on fire, according Maddon, and that is what the Rays seemed to lack through much of the first half of the season.

The rookie, known mainly for his defense, has sparked the offense with his hustle that turns singles into doubles and his power, which has surprised even himself. He has eight home runs in 158 at-bats after hitting only 15 across five minor league seasons.

He has as many RBIs (24) as 2B Ben Zobrist and CF Desmond Jennings in less than half the at-bats.

While he sometimes overdoes it on defense by overthrowing the cutoff man and turning singles into extra-base hits with ill-timed dives, Kiermaier has also helped the Rays win a few games with top-of-the-highlight-list catches and one memorable throw to the plate to nail a runner in Cincinnati.

It took injuries to RF Wil Myers and OF David DeJesus to open a spot in the lineup for Kiermaier, but once there, Kiermair has given the Rays the same kind of lift provided last year with the more-heralded arrival of Myers.

Biggest Disappointment

The Rays are battling the Red Sox to stay out of the AL East basement and not battling the Orioles for the top-spot in the division.

It wasn't just baseball writers and broadcasters who foretold of great things for this team, it was the team itself.

Manager Joe Maddon kicked it off the day pitchers and catchers reported for spring training by mentioning the motto for the 2014 Rays – “Eat Last.” Loosely based on a book 3B Evan Longoria read in the offseason, the slogan meant the Rays would be the last to the dinner table because they would be too busy winning the World Series.

Instead, the Rays spent 25 days in June with the worst record in the major leagues. Awkward.

What went wrong? Pitching (the rotation and bullpen), offense and defense. The Rays effectively turned back the clock to 2007 and nearly every member of the team had ownership in the futility.

High Point

Just a few hours after learning he was selected for the All-Star Game, LHP David Price came within an out of pitching a complete game on July 6 as the Rays beat the Tigers on ESPN's Sunday Night baseball to complete an 11-game, 10-day, three-city road trip with a 9-2 record.

The trip began and ended with the Rays taking three of four games in Baltimore and Detroit. In between was a three-game sweep of the Yankees in New York.

For the first time this season, the Rays looked like the Rays. They pitched well, hit well and played their usual style of clamp-down defense.

The road trip gives hope to the second half that Rays could – if everything breaks right – push their way into the playoff picture.

Low Point

Where to start?

There have been a number of head-shaking losses -- Jose Abreu's walk-off grand slam in Chicago, Mike Trout's walk-off three-run homer in Anaheim, A.J. Pierzynski's walk-off hit in Boston when Myers fractured his wrist after colliding with Jennings, but it's hard to get lower than a 10-game losing streak. And loss No. 8 was particularly painful.

RHP Chris Archer allowed one-run in seven mostly crisp innings, but that run scored on a bases-loaded walk in a rally that included a two-out hit by Marlins RHP Henderson Alvarez. That was all the offense Alvarez needed for a complete-game shutout in which he needed only 88 pitches.

The Rays offense left runners in scoring position, ran themselves out of one inning and basically offered little support for Archer. It was a game the Rays could have easily won yet never had a chance.

Biggest Weakness

The offense. Even though this team is built on pitching and defense, and both were shaky, the bats have underperformed.

3B Evan Longoria, who leads the Rays with 11 home runs, is 106th in the major leagues in slugging percentage and 100th in on-base plus slugging percentage. And he's the bat that is supposed to make the Rays go.

Myers (.227 average, five home runs, 25 RBIs in 198 at-bats) was underperforming before he fractured his wrist May 30. 1B James Loney and SS Yunel Escobar have not produced like they did last season. Zobrist and Jennings have disappeared for stretches.

Collectively the Rays are 12th in runs scored and 10th in batting average. They've been held to two or fewer runs 37 times this season. They've been shut out 12 times. They once went 34 consecutive hitless at-bats with a runner in scoring position.

Best Offseason Move

INF Logan Forsythe was considered the big piece in the January trade that sent LHP Alex Torres to the Padres, but for much of the season it looked as if that was a transaction that would haunt the Rays.

That is until RHP Brad Boxberger, also acquired in the trade, became a force in the bullpen, and Forsythe, thanks to consistent playing time because of an injury to Escobar, began hitting like the Rays said he would the night of the trade.

Boxberger is holding opposing hitters to .164 average, fourth-lowest among AL relievers. His 13.01 strikeouts-per-nine innings ranks seventh in the AL among relievers. Boxberger got everyone's attention when he entered a game in May against the Orioles with no outs and the bases-loaded and struck out the next three batters on nine pitchers.

Forsythe has been the most dependable bat in the Rays resurgence with a .352 average since June 20. He has 10 RBIs in his last 13 games.

Worst Offseason Move

RHP Grant Balfour was viewed as the answer for RHP Fernando Rodney, whose asking price to return to the Rays was deemed too much for the club. So Balfour, who failed a physical with the Orioles, landed in the Rays lap for $12 million over two years. Consistency was Balfour's strength as he emerged into a closer during his three years in Oakland.

But Balfour struggled as the ninth-inning man and lost his job after he allowed five runs in the ninth inning of a scoreless game against the Mariners on June 8. Maddon has gone with the closer-by-committee approach ever since, and Balfour has pitched better in lower-leverage situations. Meanwhile, Rodney has an AL-leading 27 saves for the Mariners and replaced David Price on the AL roster for Tuesday's All-Star Game.

Injury Report

The Rays have placed 12 players on the disabled list. Two are expected back in August – DeJesus and Myers.

DeJesus was having a productive season by Rays standards when he fractured his left hand June 19 while swinging a bat. He is expected to rejoin the team in mid-August.

Myers, who fractured his right wrist May 30, had been out of a cast for one week. He is currently working to rebuild the strength in the wrist before he can move forward with his rehab. Myers is not expected back until late August.

Minor-Leaguers to Watch

It doesn't seem likely the Rays will turn toward Triple-A Durham for help unless it's to replace players who get traded, should the front office decide that's the way to go in the second half.

Either way, RF Mikie Mahtook is playing well for the Bulls with a .304/.488/.860 slash line, 25 doubles, 52 RBIs and 12 stolen bases in 14 attempts.

LHP Mike Montgomery, who game to the Rays in the James Shields trade, is 9-1 with a 3.21 ERA. RHP Matt Andriese, who came over in the Torres trade, is 10-4 with a 3.42 ERA.

Second-Half Outlook

Do you believe in miracles?

It will take almost that for the Rays to reach the postseason. As it stands now, they are nine games under .500 and 9 games out of first place.

Finishing the first half with 12 wins in 17 games against teams with winning records is a good sign. So, too, is the fact the offense is finally showing a pulse.

Everything will have to break right for the Rays in the second half for them to make a serious climb up the standings. That nearly everything went wrong in the first half gives hope, because the players feel the best stretch of baseball lay ahead. Also, the players haven't quit on the season, so that's a good sign.

But much of the Rays' second-half fate rests with executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman's decision to keep this team together or trade off parts to build for the future.

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