ST. PETERSBURG — Barring another unexpected collapse, the Tampa Bay Rays will go into the All-Star break next week still riding their most successful streak of the season, one in which they won 18 of their last 28 games.
The question on the minds of many, of course, is whether the four-day break the Rays will get before starting up again against the Twins in Minnesota on July 18 is coming at a good time.
Rays manager Joe Maddon is certain that it is.
“Do we need (the break) right now,'' Maddon asked rhetortically before Wednesday's game against the Royals. “Yes we do, because we've been pushing it pretty hard here lately.
“And that's what we're going to have to be able to do is put it down and pick it right back up again. That's going to be the tricky part about all this, but we're going to have to do it.''
One month ago today, the Rays had lost 14 of 15 and were 15 games behind the AL East-leading Toronto Blue Jays. Since then, they have moved to within 10 games of the division leader, and Maddon says that has taken a toll on the team.
“We've been driving, driving, driving and playing really well and we've got ourselves back into it, but I also believe we need the rest, because we have been pushing it so hard,'' he said.
The schedule they'll face following the break should help the Rays catch their breath. It includes two days off in the first week following the break and another two weeks later.
“I normally wouldn't like that schedule, but in a perverse way, I think it actually works in our favor this year,'' Maddon said. “It could actually help us the way it will be the latter part of July and going into August.
Trial and error
Tuesday night marked the sixth time this year that LHP Jake McGee has pitched 1 1⁄3 innings in a game, but he's still not completely comfortable with the practice of finishing one inning and going back out for another.
“It's not the easiest thing to do to get four outs, especially with a long inning in between, but I've got to adjust to it and be prepared for it so I'm able to do it every time,'' McGee said.
McGee said he's starting to develop what he thinks is a good routine for such outings, one that includes wrapping his throwing arm in a towel to keep it warm and stretching between innings.
“I try to throw a couple extra pitches out there (during the warm-up period), too,'' he said. “That pretty much takes care of it, so I'm figuring it out. Some guys are really good at it, some guys have a hard time with it.''
McGee would seem to fall into the latter category. He's turned in three dominating performances in those situations so far this year and three that, like Tuesday, were a lot less sparking.
McGee gave up three hits and two runs (both earned), and while he still earned the save in the Rays' 4-3 victory, the outing left him with a 5.63 ERA, three walks and 10 strikeouts in four-out situations.
OF Brandon Guyer sparked a game-deciding rally with pure hustle during the Rays' victory Tuesday night, first by bunting for a single and then by winning a race to second base against Royals SS Alcides Escobar.
Guyer's small victory gave 3B Evan Longoria the time necessary to beat Escobar's subsequent throw to first, and both runners eventually scored the insurance runs the Rays needed to win.
“Yeah, he had it his mind to do that,'' Maddon said of bunting to get the inning started. “He's not afraid to do that. And then he has the great hustle play right there. But that's what I love about him.
He plays the whole game. (OF Kevin) Kiermaier, he plays the whole game, too, and we're starting to get (OF Desmond) Jennings to play the entire game. (Logan) Forsythe (does it). We're becoming more athletic in a sense. We're playing baseball, not just trying to outslug the other team.''
Bedard and the bullpen
Maddon said RHP Jeremy Hellickson was feeling fine Wednesday following his first start back from a months-long layoff due to elbow surgery. That means LHP Erik Bedard is destined to spend some time in the bullpen.
“That's the way baseball is,'' said Bedard, who was 4-6 with a 4.82 ERA in 15 starts for the Rays this year. “You just have to adjust with the punches. I'll go day by day and see how it happens.
A relief role is not foreign to Bedard. He has made 10 career relief appearances, going 1-1 with one save and a 2.66 ERA in 232⁄3 innings, but Maddon admits Bedard is not at his best in that role.
“He's not a relief pitcher, so I don't know that he's going to have some nugget to provide to our younger relief pitchers,'' Maddon said. “He's got a much greater chance of still making an impact from a starter's position.''