AL East notebook; For Rays to remain competitive, depth is critical

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – For the past two seasons, Kevin Cash of the Tampa Bay Rays was named American League manager of the year. In the 38-year history of the award, Cash became the first skipper in the American League to earn that honor, and this time, he has the Rays playing at a high, competitive level.

Securing a post-season slot in each of the past three years, the Rays appear pointed toward another American League playoff run. This time around, the challenge appears daunting and that’s because of the injuries. At the current All-Star game break, the Rays have lost 15 players to Injured Reserve and that’s the highest in the majors. Still, Cash has been able to piece together a lineup that accentuates flexibility and production.

After sweeping the Boston Red Sox in a recent series here in Tropicana Field and taking two of three from the rising Baltimore Orioles just before the All-Star break, Cash appears ready to push all the right buttons.

“I look at the second half in the same way I looked at the division in the off-season, in spring training, and every point since I’ve been here,” Cash said during that recent Boston series. “It’s really, really good and you will have to play great baseball every night.”

If the Rays are to remain competitive, team depth could be an issue.

Heading into the second half of the season, Cash is minus two major outfield contributors. Centerfield Kevin Kiermaier, with a left hip injury, and right fielder Manuel Margot, with a right patellar tendon strain, are both out for the season. On the mound, closer Andrew Kittredge is recovering from Tommy John surgery as is righthander Tyler Glasgow.

For Cash and Rays to remain active in the wild card race, depth will be an essential factor. Immediately, lefty Shane McClanahan stepped up and, having started the All-Star Game for the American League, leads the league with a 1.71 ERA (10-3 record). Cash also received a lift from a minor league experience.

With the bullpen depleted, the Rays recently called upon right-hander Luke Bard, signed as a free agent late in spring training. Sent to AAA Durham. Bard was recalled just before the All-Star game and promptly gave Cash three shutout innings in posting a victory in that Red Sox sweep.

“Just taking it one hitter at a time,” Bard said after up picking his first win in three years. “The win felt good, and it’s been a little while. Again, one pitch at a time, and when they send you out there, you just keep making pitches and get outs when you can.”

With Margot and Kiermaier down, Cash hopes to receive another lift from the bench. Brett Phillips, a career .203 hitter for his previous five major league seasons. was thrust into the lineup. Phillips is the first to recognize his offense requires improvement and tends to rely on defensive skills. Still, Phillips, positioned in center field for the stretch run, recognizes the sense of urgency and how the Rays are situated.

“Look at our division and look how tough it is,” Phillips said. “We have to continue to fight and can’t take a night off. That’s especially true with our schedule and how we match up against those teams.  It seems as though we have the most single series opponents out of the way and so it will be fun down the stretch.”

Future of baseball in the Tampa area

During the recent All-Star break, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred discussed the Rays stadium dilemma. Most agree that Tropicana Field, with a seating capacity around 30,000, is outdated, and beyond any reasonable renovation. In addressing the Rays future, Manfred said he prefers a new stadium location on the Tampa area and rejected the current Sr. Petersburg side of the bay. Tropicana Field is positioned just off the Interstate 275 freeway in St. Petersburg and near the Sunshine Skyway bridge that connects with Bradenton and Sarasota.

The Rays’ lease expires after the 2027 season and last year, owner Stuart Sternberg advanced the notion of splitting the home season between Montreal and Tropicana Field. That was rejected by Major League Baseball and the two reportedly have not spoken in weeks.

For the 2022 season, the Rays have drawn 676,296 at home (average of 13,802) and 28th among major league teams Only Miami and Oakland have drawn fewer fans to home games.

The Rays open the second half of the season on the road. The trip opens Friday night in Kansas City (three with the Royals) and then four in Baltimore.

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