When the Rays, in the opening weekend of their 20th anniversary celebration season, brought back and honored the inaugural 1998 Devil Rays squad, it got us thinking unexpected thoughts, such as which was a better team:
The first one, or the current one?
And then as we started weighing top starter Wilson Alvarez vs. Chris Archer, 1B Fred McGriff vs. C.J. Cron/Brad Miller, 3B Wade Boggs vs. Matt Duffy and closer Roberto Hernandez vs. Alex Colome, we got to thinking some more. (And we’ll get back to that 1998 vs. 2018 question another time.)
Given how these Rays have started — on a pace, even after some recently improved play and Friday’s thrilling win to finish 51-111 — and given how the injuries have piled up, how stiff the American League competition looks, how they’ll likely trade a half dozen veterans by the July 31 deadline, could this end up among the worst teams in their 21 years? Or even join the ignominious trio that lost 100 games?
Here’s a look at what they’re up against, with some team leading stats dropped in:
Manager: Hal McRae
C, Toby Hall
1B, Steve Cox;
2B, Brent Abernathy;
SS, Chris Gomez;
3B, Jared Sandberg;
LF, Carl Crawford;
CF, Randy Winn (75 RBI)
RF, Ben Grieve (19 HRs, 64 RBI)
DH: Aubrey Huff (.313, 23 HRs)
Top starters: Tanyon Sturtze (4-18, 5.18); Joe Kennedy (8-11, 4.53), Paul Wilson (6-12, 4.83)
Top reliever: Esteban Yan (19 saves)
Summary: The worst season in Rays history began with the best start, a three-game sweep of Detroit. But not much else went right, including a still-standing team record 15-game overall losing streak, and a separate 13-game road losing streak. These Devil Rays allowed double-digit runs 22 times on the way to an AL-worst 5.29 ERA. Their average of 4.18 runs scored per game was third lowest.
Manager: Joe Maddon
C, Toby Hall/Dioner Navarro;
1B, Travis Lee;
2B, Jorge Cantu;
SS, Julio Lugo (.308 avg.)
3B, Aubrey Huff/B.J. Upton;
LF, Carl Crawford (77 RBI)
CF, Rocco Baldelli (.871 OPS);
RF, Damon Hollins/Russell Branyan;
DH: Johnny Gomes (20 HRs)
Top starters: Casey Fossum (6-6, 5.33), Scott Kazmir (10-8, 3.24), James Shields (6-8. 4.84)
Top reliever: Tyler Walker (10 saves)
Summary: The first year under new management – Stuart Sternberg as owner, Andrew Friedman as VP, Joe Maddon as manager – was kind of a mess, including a staggering 3-32 road record from July 1 on – one win in each of the final three months. But it also was a season of transition as they shipped out a handful of veterans (Toby Hall, Aubrey Huff, Julio Lugo) and brought in several pieces of their future success (J.P. Howell, Dioner Navarro, Ben Zobrist). They also brought up rookie RHP James Shields, who would go on to play a pretty key role.
Managers: Larry Rothschild, Hal McRae
C, John Flaherty;
1B, Fred McGriff (.318 avg, .923 OPS)
2B, Brent Abernathy;
SS, Felix Martinez;
3B, Aubrey Huff;
LF, Greg Vaughn/Ben Grieve;
CF, Gerald Williams;
RF, Grieve (72 RBI)
DH: Vaughn (24 HRs, 82 RBI)
Top starters: Tanyon Sturtze (11-12, 4.42); Ryan Rupe (6-12, 6.59); Bryan Rekar (3-13, 5.89)
Top reliever: Esteban Yan (22 saves)
Summary: Bringing back Rothschild for a fourth season and then firing him after a 4-10 start set them on a bad course. Talent and depth were both lacking, as guys like Jason Tyner and Brent Abernathy got 300-plus at-bats. Losing 28 games by one-run didn’t help as their average of 4.15 runs per game was an AL-low. And the 4.94 team ERA wasn’t much better.
Tampa Bay Rays catcher Wilson Ramos (40) looks toward the dugout after a game against the Red Sox last season. (Times file)
The chosen one? The Mets keep insisting they won’t add a catcher, but when they do, Wilson Ramos sure seems like a good fit. The Rays wouldn’t need much back. Hmm … what about a 30-year-old outfielder off to a slow start at Double-A who would send some fans (and a certain sports editor) into a Tebow-ing frenzy?
Fun in the sun: A Wall Street Journal piece on the failures of the Rays and Marlins didn’t break any news, using a click-bait headline-grabbing anonymous quote from a “person familiar with the union’s thinking” to assert “baseball in Florida has been a disaster.” More interesting was Rays president Matt Silverman once again putting the burden of proof on the Tampa Bay market, saying it is “a pivotal point” for the franchise and “this new stadium effort is a fresh opportunity for the community to show that it values a baseball team.”
Rays pitcher Chris Archer (22) throws during the third inning of the game against the Minnesota Twins on April 20. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
In an ESPN panel ranking of the game’s top 100 players, RHP Chris Archer was 51st (down from 40) and injured CF Kevin Kiermaier 96th (down from 82). … Whatever mytopsportsbook.com is, it ranks Baltimore’s Buck Showalter a 6-5 favorite as the next manager to get fired, with Kevin Cash second at 9-1. Not gonna happen. … Don’t know who they were looking at (Alex Colome?) but the Cardinals had senior special assistant Mike Jorgensen at the Trop last week. Cubs scouts also were around. … There’s action to bring a team to Oregon, where Portland Diamond Project backers have made offers to buy land for a downtown stadium, hired architects and attorneys and raised money. … It’s one thing for ESPN and other national media to lazily say the Rays play in Tampa, but last week in a tweet from mlb.com’s Cut 4 account? … The Tampa Bay 2020 group backing the Ybor City stadium hosts a free showing of Field of Dreams 7 p.m. Monday at the Tampa Theatre. … Though the Rays average of 15,751 (through Friday) tops the A’s, Marlins, Pirates and White Sox, there’s already been four Trop games with announced attendance (tickets sold) of less than 10,000. … Look for pre- and post-game radio host Neil Solondz to lend a hand to the Fox Sports Sun TV crew next weekend, and Steve Carney to slide into the radio role. … As odd as the Steven Souza Jr. trade to Arizona seemed at the time, INF Nick Solak is hitting .319 with a .443 on-base percentage at Double-A and LHP Anthony Banda had 20 strikeouts to four walks in his first 15 innings at Triple-A Durham, going 2-1, 2.40.
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Wins have been hard enough for the Tampa Bay Rays to come by this season that they’ll take them however they can get, embracing the momentum that comes with them.
Tampa Bay (6-13) has now won three of four games — after opening the year 3-12 — and hope to continue that success with a hot pitcher as Blake Snell takes the mound on Saturday afternoon.
“We feel sexy about it,” outfielder Carlos Gomez said after veteran bats played a big role in Friday’s 10-inning win. “It’s not how old you are, it’s how you feel. And every day I feel hot.”
The Rays looked to have another late-inning bullpen collapse when reliever Sergio Romo, up 6-2 in the eighth, gave up a grand slam to tie the game. Max Kepler put the Twins ahead with a solo home run, but the Rays rallied to tie the game with two outs in the ninth, then won on a fielding error in the 10th when Zach Duke didn’t touch first as he fielded a flip for a potential inning-ending out.
“Tough play to end on a PFP play,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said of the pitchers-fielding-practice mishap.
Snell has shown the form that made him one of the Rays’ top prospects of late — he’s won back-to-back starts, lasting six innings in both, with a combined 19 strikeouts and only two earned runs allowed. Snell for his career is 0-0 with a 6.75 ERA in two outings against the Twins — he has 14 strikeouts against only two walks, but last year gave up six runs on seven hits in just four innings.
The Twins will counter with veteran right-hander Kyle Gibson, who is 1-0 with a 3.68 ERA, but hasn’t made it through the fifth inning in either of his last two starts. He’s struggled for his career against the Rays — 1-4 with a 7.04 ERA, with only the Yankees (9.31) holding a higher ERA among the teams he’s faced more than twice. He’s given up 42 hits in 30 2/3 innings against Tampa Bay, with more walks (17) than strikeouts (15).
Both teams had bullpen issues on Friday — Romo gave up his first career grand slam in his 577th career appearance, and Duke’s ERA rose to 9.53 in taking the loss in the 10th. Minnesota is still the AL Central leader at 8-6 — they’d be six games back in the East and 2 1/2 in the West.
The Rays can clinch a second straight series win with a victory Saturday, a small step as they work to dig themselves out of a deep early hole and get back to at least .500 baseball. Friday’s winning run came off a hit from infielder Brad Miller, who had just been activated off the disabled list and was happy to provide a small spark.
“Brad came through with a nice hit and we just battled back,” said teammate Denard Span. “I think that’s a good character win. We showed a lot of grit tonight … that for sure was a good, resilient character win right there.”
Pinch runner Johnny Field scored the decisive run from second base on an infield grounder with two out in the bottom of the 10th inning as the Tampa Bay Rays posted an 8-7 victory over the Minnesota Twins on Friday night at Tropicana Field.
The Rays had runners on first and second when Denard Span sent a bouncer to the right of Joe Mauer. The Minnesota first baseman gloved the ball and made the throw to left-hander Zach Duke (1-1) at first but Duke missed the bag and Span was ruled safe.
Mauer pointed toward home but Duke’s throw was off the mark and Field easily scored the game-winning run. The play was reviewed and it was confirmed Duke missed the bag and he was charged with an error.
Alex Colome (1-2) pitched a perfect 10th for the Rays, who have won three of their past four games.
Minnesota rallied from a 6-2 deficit after seven innings to take a 7-6 advantage in the ninth. Eddie Rosario delivered a game-tying grand slam in the eighth and Max Kepler hit a homer in the ninth off Rays left-hander Ryan Yarbrough.
But Twins right-hander Fernando Rodney was unable to hold the lead. Carlos Gomez was hit by a pitch with two outs and stole second before scoring the tying run on Brad Miller’s high-hopping single to center.
Logan Morrison also homered for the Twins.
Span drove in three runs and Chris Archer tossed 6 2/3 strong innings for Tampa Bay. Adeiny Hechavarria reached base four times on two hits and two walks for the Rays.
Archer gave up two runs and four hits. The right-hander struck out five and walked one.
Archer departed after walking Eduardo Escobar with two out in the seventh. Left-hander Jose Alvardo struck out Kepler to end the inning and the Rays appeared to be in good shape after scoring three runs in the bottom of the frame to take a 6-2 lead.
But the Twins loaded the bases with one out in the eighth. Right-hander Sergio Romo struck out Miguel Sano but Rosario followed by going down to get an 0-2 pitch to hit the blast to right that knotted the score at 6.
Twins right-hander Lance Lynn gave up five runs and seven hits in six-plus innings. Lynn struck out seven and walked five.
–Field Level Media
Archer, who’ll start Friday night’s game against the Twins, isn’t a subject of concern for manager Kevin Cash despite sporting a 7.84 ERA and 1.69 WHIP over his first four starts, Bill Chastain of MLB.com reports.
The pitcher himself also seems unconcerned, as he stated earlier this week that he’s already “flushed” his disastrous outing against the Phillies last time out. The hard-throwing right-hander allowed seven earned runs over four innings in that start, but Archer commented that he felt much better over his last pair of frames and was actually “getting into a groove” following a forgettable second inning. Meanwhile, Cash feels that there isn’t anything amiss physically or mechanically with his staff ace despite his struggles, and he also brushed off talk that Archer should resort to mixing more changeups into his repertoire. “I don’t agree with that,” Cash said. “He’s a fastball-slider pitcher. He can use it as he wants. But I certainly don’t agree with the fact that the changeup needs to be in place of his fastball or slider. And he doesn’t either.”
Rays Defeat Rangers in Finale
Timely hitting paced Jake Faria’s impressive six innings as the Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Texas Rangers 4-2 Wednesday afternoon in St. Petersburg.
Rangers starter Cole Hamels carried a shutout into the sixth inning, but the Rays were able to string together several hits and rode quality base running to a three-run frame that put them ahead for good. Daniel Robertson’s RBI double brought the game even and set up C.J. Cron’s bloop single to break the tie.
Adeiny Hechavarria added a sac fly before the inning’s close. In the seventh, a Denard Span RBI double gave Tampa Bay a needed insurance run and set up the bullpen to close out a tight series finale at Tropicana Field.
Archer Carries Rays Into Weekend
(AP Photo/Steve Nesius)
Tampa Bay’s next test is a weekend series against the AL Central-leading Minnesota Twins in St. Petersburg. Minnesota is coming off a two-game split against Cleveland in Puerto Rico, a series announced last year by Major League Baseball.
The Twins’ victory came with a price. It took a 16-inning marathon ending with Ryan LaMarre’s RBI single to finally down the Tribe. With the win, Minnesota overtook Cleveland by a half-game for the division lead.
The Rays have had an all-but-easy beginning to the regular season, hovering at the bottom of the AL East with a putrid 5-13 record. Tampa Bay would surely like to finish April strong and hope ace Chris Archer’s series-opening start against the Twins will set the rhythm they need.
“Good pitchers get to being good through different avenues,” said manager Kevin Cash.
Cash was referring to Archer’s continued search for consistency after starting the season with a 7.84 ERA. But despite the struggles in April, Archer sees this weekend as a perfect place to set a new tone.
“I’m feeling good going into Friday,” he said.
Marlins Look to Build
Meanwhile, the Rays’ neighbors to the south haven’t fared much better at the season’s start. The Miami Marlins are dead last in the NL East, following a 2-6 stretch riddled with offensive inconsistency.
Miami opens a four-game series Thursday in Milwaukee. The new-look Brewers are 10-9 to start the season, kept afloat by a solid bullpen and the power of Eric Thames. Thames’ seven homers rank second in the MLB and have become more frequent. His torrid start to April is reminiscent of a year ago when he hit .345 with 11 home runs to lead Milwaukee to the top of the NL Central.
(AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
The Marlins, on the other hand, have had an April to forget. The first month of regular season play under new ownership hasn’t been kind to Miami, who has limped to just five wins thus far. Starting pitching woes haven’t helped with an inconsistent offensive output – and Miami has learned the hard way that you can’t win without pitching.
Miami will have an opportunity all weekend to get their bats in a groove, as Milwaukee’s starters have been just as on-and-off. And despite the annual April optimism, manager Don Mattingly knows the reality of his team’s weaknesses.
“Obviously, we’ve had trouble scoring runs,” he said.
It’s a challenge for young teams to find a rhythm early, and consistency can often take below-average teams weeks to achieve. For both the Marlins and Rays, now is the time to try to find that consistency.
ST. PETERSBURG – Mallex Smith has style.
Effervescent personality. Pop culture hipness. Sense of fashion with accoutrements.
Now the Rays are going to find out if he has game.
More specifically, enough game to be a front-line outfielder, even an impact player, in the majors.
A season that isn’t projecting to yield many wins will at least provide opportunity.
And the frustrating loss of standout center fielder Kevin Kiermaier for a large chuck of a third straight year puts Smith atop the list of Rays players in position to take advantage.
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Offensively, the first couple weeks have been promising. Smith got to Thursday ranked second in the American League with a .373 average and seventh with a .418 on-base percentage, though he could benefit from better bunting.
Defensively, though, there’s been concerns. Between misplays and missed plays, Smith has made too many mistakes that have caused too many problems too many times.
“Mallex is at that point we know how much he can help us offensively and impact us when he gets on base. He’s got a knack for his approach at the plate and not trying to do too much most of the time,” manager Kevin Cash said.
“Defensively, we’ve talked about it from day one how much we value it. We need to get him to do that. I think this will be an opportunity for him to really focus on filling in for an elite center fielder. We’re not asking him to be KK. Go be Mallex. But be kind of clean out there and make the plays that you’re capable of making.”
Smith, 24, would seem to have the ability, most obviously game-changing speed. Rays staff and coaches say he has the right attitude, willing to put in the time to address his shortcomings. Though in his third season in the majors between the Braves and Rays, he still doesn’t have that much experience, starting only 131 games.
“He’s shown that he likes to work,” Rays outfield coach Rocco Baldelli said. “He’s putting a lot of attention on his outfield play. And with the kind of athlete that he is, he has a chance to be an excellent outfielder. And I think he’s well on his way.”
Smith, typically, is in a hurry to get there.
“I’m not really here to prove myself or establish myself,” he said. “I’m here to help the team win. Whatever I can do to help the team win, that’s what I’m here for.”
And if that requires extra work and effort, Smith says he is committed.
“My all-around game — I don’t want to lack in any areas,” he said. “So wherever I’m lacking, I’m going to practice to be better. .. I can make better throws. I can make more plays. There’s still a lot to be done.”
Here are three other Rays in position to take advantage of injury-created opportunity:
* Infielder Daniel Robertson. Though the short half of the second base platoon with lefty-swinging Joey Wendle, his combination of matured offensive approach — a .455 on-base percentage keyed by 12 walks —and adjusted launch angle to his to his swing has been intriguing. And with third baseman Matt Duffy sidelined for now, Robertson is in line to be in the lineup every day to show what he can do at the plate. The work in the field continues to dazzle.
* Right-hander Yonny Chirinos. He struggled a bit Tuesday, but has still been the best of the “Bullpen Day” starters. And that puts the quiet rookie in position to move into the No. 4 spot in the rotation that has been down a man with Nathan Eovaldi out, and will be until late May. Look for him to start Sunday.
* Outfielder Johnny Field. The trickle down of Kevin Kiermaier’s injury is that Field gets to stick around for a while, getting starts in left and right. At some point the Rays will have to decide between him and Rob Refsnyder, who is out of options and can’t be sent down as Field can. But, for now, Johnny Ballgame has the chance to impress.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays