Surprising Rays in first place despite defeat

by Gary Shelton on May 23, 2015 · 0 comments

in general, Tampa Bay Rays

Karns gave up only two runs, but the Rays could not score against Oakland/ANDREW J. KRAMER

Karns gave up only two runs, but the Rays could not score against Oakland/ANDREW J. KRAMER

Saturday, 8:53 p.m.

This is a first place team?

There are days, lots of them, when they cannot hit. Even against the worst team in the American League, the Oakland A's, the Tampa Bay Rays did a lot of swinging and missing in a 5-0 defeat Saturday.

The defense is usually top-notch. But not Saturday, Saturday, the Rays committed two errors on one play, and the A's put together four runs, more than enough to win.

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The bullpen is usually dazzling. But not Saturday. Saturday, Rays' reliever Xavier Cedena gave up two hits and two runs in only one-third of an inning.

DeJesus out at second in the 7th inning./ANDREW J. KRAMER

DeJesus out at second in the 7th inning/ANDREW J. KRAMER

Given it all, then, how do you explain this? How do you rationalize the presence of the Rays on top of the rich AL East standings?

In other words, even a loss to a bad team can underscore just how special a story the Rays have become. Because a team that can look so pedestrian against the A's continues to keep a grip on the division race. Despite all the injuries, despite all the rookies, the Rays remain a game-and-a-half ahead of the New York Yankees.

Yes, this is a first-place team. Call them the Unlikies. The Ugly Ducklings. But on most days, they have been far better than most of us expected.

The surprising Rays, held together by duct tape and Spackle, somehow continue to rule the American League East. Even on a day like this, when they did not hit particularly well, and they did not field as well as normal, and they found a way to lose a 5-0 decision to the worst team in the American League, the Rays maintained a game and a half lead. Even when they lose, it seems, they cannot lose.

And yes, manager Kevin Cash said, his team is capable of maintaining its lead.

“I think it shows that we're getting more players who are maturing on a daily basis.'' Cash said. “ I think you have to look at the positives and say 'this guy is better with each outing, this guy is better with each at bat. He's getting more knowledge about what he's capable of. What the league's about. That's where we find that mix.''

How stunning is it that this team is first?

The Rays have taken over first place despite sending 14 players to the disabled list for 15 stints, most in the major leagues. No other team in the division has more than 11.

The Rays are in first despite three combined starts from Alex Cobb, Matt Moore and Drew Smyly.

They have used four rookies for 17 starts, both most in the majors. (Rays rookies are a combined 9-4 with three saves and a 3.83 era)

They have used 40 players and 13 rookies, both most in the majors.

They have used 16 relievers (one more than all of 2014).

They have the 17th best batting average in the bigs.

They are only 2-for-16 in replay challenges.

They are in first place despite trading nine players from their 2014 season-ending roster, including former all-stars Ben Zobrist and Matt Joyce and two rookie of the year winners (Jeremy Hellickson and Wil Myers)

They have yielded two runs or less 22 times this season in 44 games.

What it has done is made for a nice little start by a team you might have expected to do this at the AAA level. For the most part, the Rays have been solid on defense and spectacular I the bullpen. They lead the league with 146.2 innings pitched and 19 saves. Since April 19, the Rays are second in the majors with a 1.86 era and a .187 batting average.

“I think everybody 's playing pretty well,'' pitcher Chris Archer said. “We've had contributions from (Logan) Forsythe, who has been huge. Joey Butler. I know Steven Souza's average isn't that great, but his defense has been great and he's hit some clutch home runs. So everybody is doing their part.''

But can the Rays sustain this?

“I think so,'' Archer said. “We do have a couple of pieces that will be healthy, like (John) Jaso, which will boost our lineup. Des (Desmond Jennings). He's a catalyst. I don't think it's a fluke what our pitching staff is doing as a whole. That's what is going to drive us. Our defense is great. I think we're playing exciting baseball, the hit and run, the double steal. We have had some power. We have guys with 4-5 home runs. It's not like one guy has 12. Every night it's someone new. That's what championship teams do.''

Of course, we are just past one-fourth of the season. The Rays have a lot more winning to do.

For now, however, they are in first place.

And even a rare bad outing can show how remarkable that can be.

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