There have been plenty of times to be discouraged about the Rays this season.
Going back to when they parted ways in December with top starters Charlie Morton and Blake Snell. When high-leverage reliever Nick Anderson was hurt in spring training and sidelined more than half the season. When they were swept in Boston in early April. When they lost seven of 10 to drop two games under .500 on May 1. When they scored one run in back-to-back losses to the Yankees last week.
Now, as they open a three-game series in Baltimore on Tuesday night at 23-19, this seems the time to be most encouraged. Here are 10 reasons why:
1. They are on a roll.
The four-game win streak matches their second longest of the season, and they are a season-high four games over .500.
2. They are getting healthier.
Position player-wise, first baseman Ji-Man Choi made his season debut Sunday, catcher Francisco Mejia returned from the injured list, and centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier (wrist) is due back this week. Pitcher-wise, Diego Castillo came back last week to pair with Pete Fairbanks as a high-leverage duo, Collin McHugh returned to pitch well in a multi-inning role, and Michael Wacha (hamstring) is expected back soon to add depth.
3. The offense has gotten better.
It might be worth asking hitting coach Chad Mottola for some lottery numbers or something. In the four games since he said there was no reason to panic about the impotent offense and the team had plenty of confidence, the Rays have put up 31 runs — their most of any four-game stretch — and 42 hits.
4. They’ve been crisp with RISP.
The best thing about that four-game offensive outburst is that they went 14-for-42 (.333) with runners in scoring position. While that may not seem great, consider that until then they were hitting a majors-worst .197 with RISP, including .149 with two outs and .135 at home. They are up to .213 overall (28th in the majors) with RISP, .182 with two outs, .180 at home.
5. The pitching has been back to its normal good.
After a rough start — a 5.74 ERA that ranked 28th in the majors through April 9 — the pitching staff is back to being one of the league’s best. Over the six-game New York, New York homestand, the Rays posted a 2.00 ERA (12 earned runs in 54 innings) and held the Yankees and Mets to 3-for-28 with runners in scoring position. Further, the Rays have a 2.56 ERA over their last 15 games, 2.70 over their last 22, and 3.11 since April 10. At 3.55 overall, they ranked eighth in the majors through Sunday and third in the American League.
6. The kids have been all right.
The three young pitchers brought up since mid-April — Josh Fleming, Shane McClanahan and Luis Patino (who moves into a traditional starter’s role Tuesday) — are a combined 5-4, 2.83 with 56 strikeouts in 63 2/3 innings. (The old man, Rich Hill, has been pretty good, too, with a 17 2/3-inning scoreless streak.)
7. Choi will help.
Three hits, like he got Sunday, are great. But what Choi can do on a regular basis is join Yandy Diaz and Joey Wendle as hitters more likely to put the ball in play or walk in a lineup laden with others who are striking out. And not just a majors-leading amount (438) but on a record-smashing pace. Through Sunday, Randy Arozarena was fourth in the AL with 50 strikeouts, Willy Adames fifth with 48, Brandon Lowe sixth with 47.
8. They’ve been coming back to win.
The Rays overcame multi-run deficits to beat the Mets on Friday and Saturday, which marked the fifth time already they’ve rallied from three runs down. Overall, they’ve come from behind in 11 of their 23 wins.
9. They’re making close count.
Manager Kevin Cash says often how they are built to play close games, given an offense that doesn’t put up huge numbers and the premium they place on pitching and defense. More than half their games have been decided by two or fewer runs (including 10 of their last 12 losses), with an 11-11 mark thus far — and 6-7 in one-run games.
10. The schedule is a bit softer.
For once, the Rays get some rest. After playing 30 games in 31 days, they are in a stretch of 27 in 32, those five days off allowing them to manage their bullpen better, and use who they want more often than who they can or have to. Also, only eight of their next 24 games are against teams more than one game over .500.
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