The Rays plan to keep calm and carry on
By Matt Martell
The Tampa Bay Rays were the best team in Major League Baseball over the first three months of the season. In July, they were the second worst.
With 16 losses in 24 games, it was their worst month since 2007, the year before they dropped the “Devil” from their moniker. During this monthlong about-face, they went from leading the American League East by 6.5 games to trailing the upstart Baltimore Orioles by a game and a half.
Yet, in the final hours before Tuesday’s trading deadline, there was no panic in the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium, where Tampa Bay was getting ready to play the second of three games against the last-place New York Yankees. The Rays understood they were never going to keep up the fast pace they carried through April, just as they recognized they would not continue to play as poorly as they did in July.
The Rays had just withstood the nadir of their season, and they still had the third best record in the majors and held a four-game lead over the Houston Astros for the top spot in the AL wild-card standings. As they saw it, they were in fairly good shape.
“We believe that this group is a championship-caliber group. We believe that they’ve shown that to be the case this season, over the course of the entire season,” Rays general manager Peter Bendix said Tuesday night. “And we believe that that’s the group moving forward that can take us where we want to go.”
Tampa Bay has outscored its opponents by 142 runs this season, resulting in an expected record of 69-41, three games better than the team’s actual record. Baltimore’s run differential — plus-60 — indicates that team would typically be 59-48. So some of the gap between the teams could be attributed to luck.
The biggest problem for the Rays during their July swoon was their offense going cold. After scoring 5.64 runs a game over the first three months, they averaged 3.63 in July.
“We had eight or nine guys all raking at the same time to start the year,” manager Kevin Cash said. “And then eight of the nine stopped at the same time.”
The bats appear to be waking up again. Over the past week, the Rays have averaged 4.43 runs a game. Second baseman Brandon Lowe is batting .423 with four home runs in his last seven games. Third baseman Isaac Paredes has hit three of his team-leading 21 home runs within the last four games. And Randy Arozarena, the team’s All-Star outfielder, broke an 0-for-26 slide with a two-run homer on Tuesday.
After Monday’s 5-1 win over the Yankees, outfielder Josh Lowe said he felt the team was getting its confidence and energy back.
“It’s a 162-game season — guys get tired,” he said. “We all kind of just got tired at the same time. But it’s time to pick it up again. I think we all realized that we’re getting down to the wire a little bit. It’s time to put it into gear and get playing some good baseball.”
That faith explains the approach Tampa Bay took in the weeks leading up to the deadline. Instead of going all-in for the biggest stars on the block, the Rays made several smaller moves to add depth to the higher levels of their farm system and reinforce their injury-depleted pitching staff.
“When you have a team like we do, that we think of as a championship-level team, you feel a lot of urgency to make that team better — and you also have maybe fewer areas that are obvious in which you can improve,” Bendix said. “We really do believe in the quality of this team to this point.”
Starters Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen both went down with season-ending injuries earlier this year, as did reliever Garrett Cleavinger. Josh Fleming has been out since early June with elbow inflammation and isn’t particularly close to returning. Neither Andrew Kittredge, a reliever, nor Shane Baz, a young starter, have pitched at all this season after having Tommy John surgery last year. An oblique strain cost Tyler Glasnow nearly two months at the start of the season, and the team’s ace left-hander, Shane McClanahan, missed the first half of July with back tightness.
With all that in mind, the Rays made their most notable deadline deal on Monday when they acquired right-handed starter Aaron Civale from the Cleveland Guardians for Kyle Manzardo, a 23-year-old first baseman who is a consensus top-100 prospect in the minors.
Civale, 28, has quietly become one of the better starting pitchers in baseball over the past year and a half. Across 13 starts this season, he is 5-2 with a 2.34 ERA. He does not have overwhelming stuff — his fastball velocity sits in the low 90s — but he makes up for it by pounding the zone with a combination of cutters and curveballs and inducing weak contact. Importantly, he is under club control through the 2025 season. Having him around for more than just the next few months made the Rays more willing to part with a prospect of Manzardo’s talent.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had our top five starters all healthy at the same time,” Erik Neader, Tampa Bay’s president of baseball operations, said on a conference call on Monday. “This was the most obvious need we had.”
As the frenzy of deadline day picked up in the afternoon, the Rays’ players followed along eagerly, though their excitement had little to do with moves they expected their front office to make. They knew some of the other top teams in the AL had traded for All-Stars and future Hall of Famers, but they were not concerned.
“We’re watching, but not in a competitive way,” Brandon Lowe said. “We follow because we all love baseball and it’s fun to see what moves teams make.”
He added: “We don’t need wholesale changes.”
A few hours later, the Rays beat the Yankees, 5-2, for their third straight win and fifth in seven games. On Wednesday, the Rays managed just three hits -- including a two-run homer by Wander Franco in the first inning -- as the Yankees, getting seven solid innings from starter Gerrit Cole, avoided a sweep with a 7-2 win.