Can the Rays stay competitive in a very competitive American League environment?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – For the Tampa Bay Rays to maintain the tradition of post-season appearances, a few obstacles appear daunting. Not that these issues cannot be overcome but rather, and given the current state of the team, these hurdles could be a significant challenge to overcome.

Entering a three-game set with the Baltimore Orioles at home beginning June 7, the Rays stood at .500 and a record of 31-31. That would constitute 13 games behind the AL East-division-leading New York Yankees and considered a formidable gap. At the quarter-pole of the season, that distance might be reachable, but the Yankees have put together a most forbidding season.

That as a given about 60 games into the season, the Rays stand on the precipice of wild card consideration. Coming into the Baltimore series, the Rays had won three straight and a boost to their collective confidence. Still, the inconsistency of the opening two months remains a decisive factor why the Rays appear stuck on a treadmill.

“The temperament in the clubhouse I what you expect this to be,” said second baseman Brandon Lowe before the start of the Orioles series. “No one is not too high up and not surprised by the game we are playing. This is what we expect out of our team and out of our guys. We know we’re extremely talented. The rocky start which we got off to was very uncharacteristic of us and were trying to get back on track.”

If the Rays reach a certain level and realize a heightened expectation, the task ahead would appear intimidating. Both the Yankees and Orioles have created separation in the AL East division and now, the Rays find themselves battling Boston, Minnesota, Seattle, and the Royals, among teams that can catch fire, for post-season position.

“The race, for me, is not taking shape at this point,” said Brandon Hyde, the Baltimore manager prior to the series with Rays. “We are only 60 games into the season and 100 games to go. There’s a lot of baseball left. You can get off to a really good start and then fall. You can get off to a bad start and start to catch up. You’d rather get off to a good start and be consistent the rest of the way. That’s what everyone is trying to do.  But, this is a tough division. We play each other 14 times and there are close games on most nights. So, we just have a long way to go.”

One condition that may have to change is Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash’s penchant, and at times an absolute conviction, and playing the odds. Cash is a principal proponent of match-ups and, at times, seems to go out of his way to gain a righty-lefty or lefty-right match-up

In the opener game of the Baltimore series at home June 7, and because lefty Cole Irwin started for the Orioles, Cash chose to bench Josh Lowe and Lowe, two left-hander hitters, and two of Cash’s dependable power hitters. Instead, Jonny De Luca, who entered the game in a 0-for-25 slump, started in right and Jose Caballero, with the return of Taylor Walls to shortstop, started at second. Combined, the pair of DeLuca and Caballero went 2-for-7 in the June 7th 6-3 loss to Baltimore before 17,822 in Tropicana Field.

While there is a need to match players with an optimistic chance for success, analytics, at times, do not appear to be an effective way to play competitive baseball.

Also, consider the plight of Aaron Civale, the Tampa Bay starter, in the June 7 opener against Baltimore.

In going five innings against the O’s in that game, Civale reached a season-high 105 pitches. Pitching behind most of the game, Civale, with two strikes on several hitters, failed to put away the vast number of hitters. In elevating his pitch count. Civale did not show the ability to pitch effectively to spots.

Equally challenging was Civale’s generosity.

In giving up a second-inning home run to Anthony Santander and a two-run blast to Ryan Mountcastle in the fifth, Civale has now surrendered 13 dingers on the season. That is one behind Triston McKenzie of Cleveland, who surrendered 14 homers. That is prior to the games of June 7.

Throughout his five-year major league career, Civale has pitched up in the strike zone. That is a likely factor in the surrender of home runs. Coming into the 2024 season, the 28-year-old from East Windsor, Conn. gave up 20 home runs in 475.1 innings. In 2024 alone, he has given up those 13 homers in 67.0 innings.

“I’ve pitched to the top of the zone my whole career so I’m not going to change who I am,” Civale said after taking the loss on June 7. “The homers that are hit are typically mistakes on my end. Guys will hit balls that are above the zone out and then, I’ll tip my hat to them. But, I won’t change how I approach.”

With the loss, Civale dropped to 2-5 and a 5.51 ERA in 13 starts.

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