TBO.com: Tampa Bay Online, The Tampa Tribune and The Tampa Times - breaking news and weather.
Monday, Sep 22, 2014
Rays

Understudies help spark Rays recent surge

Published:

— Look at the Rays now. Just like they drew it up during spring training, right?

The kid in right field is batting above .300 and brings some pop to the lineup.

The closer is closing.

The set-up man is nearly untouchable.

The fifth starter is one of their most dependable in the rotation.

One of the guys they play in left field creates some uncomfortable moments for the opposing team with his speed on the bases and can actually get down a bunt.

This is what we expected coming out of spring training, except they’re doing it with different players in starring roles.

The kid in right field is not Wil Myers but Kevin Kiermaier.

The closer is not Grant Balfour but Jake McGee.

The set-up man is not McGee (most nights), not Juan Carlos Oviedo and not Heath Bell. It’s Brad Boxberger.

The fifth starter is not Jeremy Hellickson or Chris Archer. It’s Jake Odorizzi.

The guy in left field with all the speed is not David DeJesus. It’s Brandon Guyer.

You hear all spring training about how it will take more than the 25 guys on the major-league roster to get a team through a season. That’s why executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman always talks about adding depth to the upper tier of the minor-league system.

Stuff happens. Injuries. Poor play.

Bell and Josh Lueke pitched themselves off the team. So did Oviedo, who was designated for assignment Saturday.

Enter Boxberger, who entered Saturday night’s game against the Red Sox on a 131⁄3-inning scoreless streak. He struck out 18 and walked just one during that stretch.

Balfour was signed to replace Fernando Rodney. He returned to the Rays with the reputation of being one of the most consistent closers in baseball. That hasn’t been the case this season, and Balfour lost his role in mid-June.

Rays manager Joe Maddon went to the closer-by-committee approach. Maddon is still using that approach, yet McGee has emerged as the ninth-inning man. It’s a role many expected McGee to fill in a year or two. But the improvements he made with the control of his fastball showed up at the same time the opportunity arose for someone who could dominate the ninth inning.

Guyer was the fifth outfielder at the start of the year. But injuries to Myers and DeJesus created playing time and Guyer responded. He’s batting .297 with a .359 on-base percentage since the start of May.

Kiermaier is the biggest surprise, making the most of the opportunity created when Guyer went on the disabled list and missed 22 games with a left thumb fracture. Then Myers went down, and Kiermaier has become the right fielder against right-handed pitchers and some lefties.

Kiermaier has brought power (a career-high eight home runs), speed to the bases and a powerful arm to the outfield. His habit of running out everything hard — even intentional walks — injected life into the lineup.

Kiermaier is doing to the lineup what Myers did last season.

Then there is Odorizzi, who was destined to begin the year at Triple-A Durham until Hellickson needed right elbow surgery in January. Matt Moore’s season-ending arm surgery created a full-time opening in the rotation, and Odorizzi has grown into the job. He’s won four of his past five decisions and has lowered his ERA from 5.31 to 3.97 during his past seven starts.

Where would this team be without Kiermaier or Boxberger? Where would it be if Maddon didn’t turn McGee loose in the ninth inning?

The front office is meticulous in constructing the Opening Day roster. It also spends a great deal of time finding options for Plan B and, in some cases, Plan C.

Right now, the understudies are doing just fine.

rmooney@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7227

Twitter: @RMooneyTBO

Subscribe to The Tampa Tribune

Comments