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‘We have work to do’

ST. PETERSBURG – The Rays’ performance midway through their schedule was technically a little worse than half-bad, given their 40-41 record.

The main question now, as they begin the second half on Friday, is whether they are rested enough to reach the play-offs for the sixth straight season.

“We have work to do,” manager Kevin Cash said. “I think that’s the easiest way to say it.”

Despite all the inconsistency and frustration of their worst first half since 2018, the Rays believe there are some promising signs.

Since the miserable 1-5 road trip to Chicago and Milwaukee, which dropped them to 14-18, prompted Cash to call a team meeting on May 3 and led to a discussion about playing with more energy and enthusiasm, the Rays have a winning record of 26-23.

And after Josh Lowe, Taylor Walls, Zach Eflin and Colin Poche returned from injuries in early June, they’ve played some of their best and most Rays-like baseball, winning four of the last five series.

“We’ve got to play better,” Cash said. “The guys know that. I feel like we’ve been doing a little bit better here lately, so that’s encouraging. But we’ve set ourselves back a little bit. Now we’ve got to make up for it in the second half and keep playing the way we’ve been playing.”

Or probably at a higher level.

To reach the 90 wins that typically results in down-to-earth playoff contention, the Rays would have to go 50-31, a .617 pace. To get to 86, the lowest that has or would have made the playoffs in a three wild card format over the last five full seasons, 46-35 (.568).

Add to that the toughest remaining schedule of any team (54 games against clubs currently .500 or better), and the challenge looms large. Fangraphs.com calculates the Rays have a 19.8 percent chance of making the American League’s six-team playoff field; baseball-reference.com says only 1.7 percent.

(On the other hand, the Rays entered Thursday 3 1/2 games out of the third wild-card spot and were one of five teams to keep the final two within 4 ½ games.)

There’s also a sense of urgency as their play over the next four weeks — including a 10-game stretch spanning the All-Star break against the AL’s top two teams, New York and Cleveland — will determine whether they ship off some of the more expensive veterans and others before the July 30 trade deadline and whether they look ahead to 2025.

“We’ve got half a season to make up some ground and continue to show that the team we’ve been lately is the team we are,” baseball operations president Erik Neander said. “And it’s going to be especially important to show that over the next month.”

They have several reasons to be optimistic, including these:

Track record

The Rays' Yandy Díaz hits a single off a pitch from the Orioles' Cole Irvin (19) during a game on June 7 at the Trop.
The Rays’ Yandy Díaz hits a single off a pitch from the Orioles’ Cole Irvin (19) during a game on June 7 at the Trop. ( JEFFEREE WOO | Times )

Arguably the biggest reason for the Rays’ troubles is that their best players weren’t playing their best.

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That has changed over the past month and has made a noticeable difference.

Yandy Diaz, last year’s AL batting champion and team MVP, raised his average and OPS from .211 and .556 on May 1 to .275 and .724. Fellow 2023 All-Star Randy Arozarena, who was hitting .158 with a .568 OPS through May 31, was slashing .279/.867 in June.

There are others. Brandon Lowe and Josh Lowe have shown signs of top form after injury stints. Closer Pete Fairbanks has dominated since his return in mid-May. Jose Siri is hitting more and playing his more typical elite defense. And so on.

“This is a pretty established major-league group that has won a lot of games and has had a lot of really good individual performances,” Neander said. “The first couple of months, things weren’t going our way, collectively or individually.

“But the work that’s been done to turn that around, the confidence that their record is much better indicators of who they are, gives us confidence that this is a much better team than the way we’ve been playing so far . And we’re starting to see that here lately.”

A plea for defense

Rays shortstop Taylor Walls throws out Cubs' Cody Bellinger at first base during a game on June 12 at the Trop.
Rays shortstop Taylor Walls throws the Cubs’ Cody Bellinger at first base during a June 12 game at the Trop. (CHRIS O’MEARA | AP)

There was some sarcasm on social media when Cash described Walls as a “game-changer” by announcing his return from the injured list.

But the usually light-hitting shortstop, along with Siri’s recent stellar play in centerfield, has had a significant impact on improving the overall defense, highlighted by a current eight-game errorless streak.

And that helps the pitchers in particular, who don’t feel the need to be so perfect and can make more contact. And the hitters theoretically don’t have to score as much.

“Since we got ‘Wallsy’ back I’ve really liked the defence, the way it’s shaped up,” Cash said. “We’ve talked about how important run prevention is for us.”

Through Baltimore’s four-game sweep that ended June 10 and dropped them to 31-35, the Rays had a minus-65 run differential. At 9-6 since then, they are plus-9.

Throw in

Rays starter Ryan Pepiot delivers a pitch in the first inning against the Mariners on Wednesday.
Rays starter Ryan Pepiot throws a pitch in the first inning against the Mariners on Wednesday. (CHRIS URSO | Times)

There are still issues with the pitching staff, especially MLB’s highest number of home runs allowed: 113, with at least one allowed in the last 12 games.

But after a slow start, the team’s ERA has dropped from 4.73 on May 3 (after a 10-8 win over the Mets) to 4.35.

That’s partly due to a stabilization of the rotation, which now consists of the expected front five: Eflin, Taj Bradley, Zack Littell, Ryan Pepiot and Aaron Civale.

And even more improvement among the relievers, who have reduced their ERA from 5.43 to 3.54 in that span, with occasional late-game failures.

“I feel like the bullpen has gotten a little bit more aligned now, which we thought would be such a strong point for our season coming out of the gate,” Cash said. “So if they can get back to their form and what they’re used to doing, that should help a lot.”

Keep close

Rays outfielder Jose Siri, 22, celebrates with teammates after hitting a single and driving in the winning run against the Athletics in a May 29 game.
Rays outfielder Jose Siri (22) celebrates with teammates after hitting a single and driving in the winning run against the Athletics in a May 29 game. (JEFFEREE WOO | Times)

The Rays have the best record in the majors in games decided by one run, 16-7, and in games decided by two runs or fewer, 28-12. They also have 22 come-from-behind victories, tied for the most in the majors.

A skeptic would say it is unsustainable and worrying. An optimist would say it is a good sign of perseverance and determination.

So would boss Ray.

“Even though this group hasn’t played their best individually, they’ve found a way to win the close game just like everyone else,” Neander said. “Things like starting a competitive pitching and winning close baseball games have given us a chance to correct a lot of the disappointing performances in the first few months and get going.”

Vibrate

Rays closer Pete Fairbanks (29) and outfielder Jose Siri (22) celebrate after a play during a May 29 game.
Rays closer Pete Fairbanks (29) and outfielder Jose Siri (22) celebrate after a play during a May 29 game. (JEFFEREE WOO | Times)

When you win, all team members automatically become happier and more excited to play.

And that the energy and confidence that come from winning can provide momentum and a more favorable climate for further success.

Cash noted that players have “taken ownership of some things” over the past month or so and have “stayed positive” in their support of each other.

Veteran reliever Shawn Armstrong said it started to feel like the last few seasons again during that same period.

“It’s the vibrations,” he said. “You can kind of feel it. It’s not ‘urgent,’ and that kind of environment. It’s like, ‘We’re here and we’re going to take care of business.’ We don’t talk about it. It’s, ‘Let’s go win a ballgame, win the series and move on.’

“The atmosphere was high and it’s nice to get back to that song.”

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