Joe Maddon, the Rays manager with many interests beside baseball, talks like a screenwriter when describing the first 10 days of his team's season.
"All the subplots were not good," Maddon said.
The Rays had signed designated hitter Manny Ramirez as a free agent just before spring training with the hope of squeezing one last big season from him. Instead, he played in just five games before testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. As a second-time offender, Ramirez was suspended for 100 games by Major League Baseball; he opted to retire, though he is contemplating a comeback next season. A few days later, third baseman and face of the franchise Evan Longoria strained an oblique muscle. He went on the disabled list and missed 26 games.
All of this came following a winter in which star left fielder Carl Crawford bolted to the Red Sox as a free agent for seven years and $142 million after the Rays won the American League East for the second time in three seasons. The entire bullpen, except for long man Andy Sonnanstine, and first baseman Carlos Pena also left as free agents, and right-hander Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett were traded to help cut payroll.
"There was a lot of gray area going into the offseason," Rays left-hander David Price. "Nobody knew what kind of team we were going to have. We were all wondering."
The questions only intensified when the Rays opened the season with six straight losses and eight defeats in their first nine games. Yet an odd thing happened to the Rays on the way to their own funeral—they started playing like a contending team again.
The Rays have won 21 of 28 games since their 1-8 start and are now 22-15 and in first place in the American League East, one game ahead of the Yankees. It's quite a turnaround for a team that seemed on a path back to oblivion, having only risen in 2008 to win an improbable AL pennant in their 11th year of existence after never having won more than 70 games in a season.
"We've been playing good baseball," Maddon said. "It's been no fluke. We've been playing sound, fundamental baseball. Our defense has been good. Our pitching has been good. Our situational hitting has been good. It's a nice little balance we've got going."
The Rays' performance has been strong across the board, as they rank first in the AL in Defensive Efficiency (.742), second in runs allowed (3.47 a game), and sixth in runs scored (4.42). How could a team look so bad through the first 10 days of the season then turn things around so quick? Maddon believes it is all tied to Ramirez's departure.
The skeptics felt the Rays made a mistake by signing Ramirez, believing his self-centered attitude would eventually wear thin, as it did in recent years with the Red Sox and Dodgers. Ramirez was a model citizen during his brief time with the Rays, but his departure, in Maddon's mind, sparked their turnaround.
"I’m not denigrating Manny, but I really believe we have a bunch of young professional players who said that 'it's my turn to pick up the slack,'" Maddon said. "They knew they were going to be relied on and they were going to get more opportunity. They've risen to the occasion."
Right fielder Matt Joyce has taken advantage of being a full-time player for the first time in his career, as he has a .358 True Average in 117 plate appearances. First baseman Casey Kotchman, playing a few miles from hometown of Seminole, Florida after signing as a free agent in the offseason, has also resurrected his flagging career with a .332 TAv in 80 PA. Kotchman had an awful .230 TAv for the Mariners in 457 trips to the plate last season but was diagnosed with an eye infection in the offseason. He received treatment over the winter and says he is seeing the ball better than ever.
"Teams change every year. It always happens," Rays catcher John Jaso said. "Even with the loss of Carl, we couldn't just go into the season thinking we couldn't compete. I think the best way to attack a season is not to look at it as getting through 162 games but about winning that day's game. If you put all your focus on winning then the other stuff doesn't matter. Even when we were 0-6, we weren't worried because we just stayed focused on winning. The losing streak got magnified because it happened at the start of the season instead of, say, in July when all it would have done was maybe push us back down closer to .500. We knew were too good to keep losing."
The Rays have pinned their hopes of getting to the postseason for the third time in four years on their starting pitching. The rotation has indeed been excellent: Price leads the majors with a .604 Support Neutral Winning Percentage and James Shields is fifth with a .584 mark. The Phillies are the only other team with two starters in the top 10, as Roy Halladay is second and Cliff Lee is ninth.
"The starting pitching really carried us until we got our hitting going," Maddon said. "The rotation has been consistently excellent."
The bullpen has been pretty good, too, considering that vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman built the relief corps basically from scratch. He found two late-inning pitchers in the free-agent bargain bin: Kyle Farnsworth has converted seven of eight save opportunities despite a 4.13 Fair Run Average, and Joel Peralta has fashioned a 3.51 FRA as the primary set-up man.
"The bullpen has been great, and we have complete confidence in turning the game over to them," Price said. "They come in, throw strikes, and get people out. That's all you can ask for. You have to give a lot of credit to the front office. We lost a lot of really good pitchers from our bullpen, and we've been able to replace them. Really, it goes beyond the bullpen. We lost a lot of quality players but we're still winning, which says a lot about the organization."
Rumors and Rumblings: Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell returns Friday night from his two-week suspension for allegedly using anti-gay slurs and making sexually suggestive comments before an April 23 game at San Francisco. He reportedly has been very contrite and apologized by telephone to Justin Quinn, the fan who lodged the original complaint against McDowell, and his family. … The Red Sox have interest in free agent catcher Bengie Molina but have been turned off by his asking price. Speaking of Molina, some in the Giants' camp are not happy that he received a World Series ring from the organization despite being traded in June to the Rangers, who lost to San Francisco in the Fall Classic. Molina received World Series shares from both teams. … Phillies second baseman Chase Utley, who has been on the disabled list all season with a knee injury, is likely to return to the active roster next Wednesday for the start of a homestand. … General manager Ed Wade and manager Brad Mills are expected to return for the 2012 season, but with no promises beyond that, once the sale of the Astros to Houston businessman Jim Crane becomes complete, likely at the August owners' meetings in Cooperstown.
Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg, who had Tommy John surgery last September, is likely to begin throwing off a mound in the next two weeks, but it remains doubtful that he will be pushed in his rehab to the point where he will pitch in a game this season. … Mets left-hander Johan Santana threw off a mound this week for the first time since having shoulder surgery last July and is on pace to return sometime in July. … Cubs right-handers Randy Wells and Andrew Cashner, on the DL since making their first starts of the season, are expected to begin rehab assignments next weekend. … Daniel Murphy will get the majority of playing time at first base for the Mets with Ike Davis on the DL. … Rookie right-hander Josh Collmenter will take demoted Barry Enright's spot in the Diamondbacks rotation until left-hander Zach Duke returns from the DL, likely at the end of the month. …The Dodgers fear they could be without left-handed reliever Hong-Chi Kuo, who is on the DL with anxiety disorder, for an extended period of time. … Giants left-hander Barry Zito is still a month away from returning from the DL.
Free agent outfielder Milton Bradley: "I don't think we'll ever see him in the big leagues again, and it goes beyond all his temper issues. He can't play at all in the field anymore, and he can't hit, either. Considering he isn't exactly a good clubhouse guy, he has nothing to offer."
Twins designated hitter Jason Kubel: "I've never seen him this good before. He's really locked in. You used to be able to get the high fastball by him or get him to chase pitches. Not this year, though. I shudder to think how bad the Twins offense would be without him."
Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez: "He is doing exactly what Detroit was hoping he would—come up with the big hits. I don't think it's a coincidence that the Tigers caught fire right after he came off the disabled list. He's swinging the bat right now, and he really rounds out that lineup."
White Sox right-hander Jake Peavy: "I thought he pitched very well considering he had been gone 10 months [giving up four runs in six innings to the Angels on Wednesday in his first major-league start since undergoing shoulder surgery last July]. He made some mistakes in the strike zone, which is to be expected after a long layoff, and his fastball was a tick below what you're used to seeing from him. Still, I thought it was a very encouraging first outing, especially because he still looked strong in his last inning."
Orioles right-hander Chris Tillman: "He can be frustrating to watch because he's got good stuff but doesn't always command it very well. You just have to remind yourself, though, that he's a 23-year-old kid. If it eventually clicks for him, he'll be a quality major-league starting pitcher."