The history of Tampa Bay’s major league baseball team divides neatly in half — 10 seasons as the stumbling and hopeless Devil Rays, 10 more as the clever and resourceful Rays. Last season’s 94-loss debacle did not fit with the revival, but the Rays earned their last-place finish in the American League East and the skepticism that followed them to spring training.
“I think the judgment of our team was probably pretty fair going into the season, with the struggles we had last year,” starter Alex Cobb said at Yankee Stadium on Thursday. “But I also know that in the clubhouse, there was this — I wouldn’t even say quiet confidence — there was a loud confidence among the guys that we’re better than that.”
Cobb can be a free agent after the season, and for a low-budget team, that made him a likely trade candidate in the event that the Rays struggled again. Yet there was a veteran reliever, Dan Jennings, lugging a Chicago White Sox equipment bag into the Tampa Bay clubhouse Thursday afternoon after he was acquired in exchange for a prospect. Then, just before game time, the Rays announced a trade with the Mets for the slugging first baseman Lucas Duda.
They were not quite in playoff position, trailing the Yankees and the Kansas City Royals for wild-card spots and the Boston Red Sox for the division lead. They came within an out of beating the Yankees on Thursday but lost in 11 innings, 6-5, on Brett Gardner’s homer off the rookie Andrew Kittredge.
Even so, at 53-50, the Rays are poised for a pennant race as they chase their first playoff berth in four years.
“These guys have managed to win a lot of games, and they’ve done it all different ways — with offense, pitching, defense,” said Chaim Bloom, the Rays’ senior vice president for baseball operations.
“We’ve shot out to an early lead and hung on, and we’ve fallen behind and come back. These guys have a lot of grit, and when you watch them every day, they don’t quit. You see it every day, the vibe in the clubhouse, the way they believe in themselves. It makes you want to help them as much as you can.”
Bloom said the Rays had not planned for upgrades at the positions Duda will play — first base and designated hitter — or at shortstop, where Adeiny Hechavarria has thrived in the field since arriving in a trade from Miami last month. But Bloom said the goal was to build a deeper roster wherever they could, and those deals have helped.
With Duda, Hechavarria, reliever Sergio Romo, infielder Trevor Plouffe and Jennings — a left-hander who has held lefties to a .169 average this season — the Rays have added five veterans since mid-June. The message has resonated with the players.
“Just adding pieces to help us says, ‘We’re here for you’ from the front office,” said outfielder Steven Souza Jr., who had 21 homers and 63 runs batted in entering Thursday. “That’s a great sign as an organization to come together for one cause and believe in something together.”
Souza is one of several holdovers who have improved significantly over last season; so have first baseman Logan Morrison, outfielder/designated hitter Corey Dickerson and starters Cobb and Chris Archer. Third baseman Evan Longoria, the team’s centerpiece since 2008, has had another solid season (16 homers, 62 R.B.I.) after a frustrating winter.
When the Rays traded second baseman Logan Forsythe to the Los Angeles Dodgers for pitcher Jose De Leon in January, Longoria told The Tampa Bay Times that he was “surprised and upset” at the deal. The Rays made modest winter moves, signing catcher Wilson Ramos and the departed outfielder Colby Rasmus, but both have made an impact in Forsythe’s absence.
“It was a big blow, and I voiced my opinion on that; Logan was a good friend and an even better teammate and influence in the clubhouse,” Longoria said. “It’s always tough when you trade guys like that away. But having Wilson Ramos back healthy is a big addition, and although Colby is not with us anymore, he made big contributions in the early part of the season. The pieces have come together well for us.”
The Rays have some speed in outfielder Mallex Smith, and should get Kevin Kiermaier — the peerless center fielder — back from injury in early August. But mostly they are a boom-or-bust offense, leading the A.L. in strikeouts while ranking third in homers before Thursday.
Their starting pitchers have been critical to their success, logging more innings than any rotation in the majors besides Boston going into Thursday’s games. The rotation’s earned run average, 3.92, ranked just behind Houston’s for best in the A.L., and the Rays have a streak of 501 consecutive games started by pitchers under 30 years old.
“The real advantage is the continuity, the compassion we show each other and the way we’re able to relate to each other,” Cobb said. “It makes for a nice flow, a nice turnover, that when we do lose somebody, there’s not that huge age gap for the young guy who comes up. Guys feel comfortable up here at an early age. We’re all relatable to each other, and we’re able to help each other.”
They will need all the help they can get for a while, with their next five series against the contending Yankees, Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, Red Sox and Cleveland Indians. But the roster is fortified, and the Rays believe they are ready.
“We’re playing some really good teams coming up, but this is what you do this for,” Bloom said. “You want to be in this position, and we’re really excited about it.”