The Weekend Takeaway
At the end of play on June 28, the Rays were two games over .500 at 41-39, and their plus-15 run differential suggested that their middling record was just about what they deserved (42-38). To that point in the season, Joe Maddon’s squad, a pitching-first team in recent years, was in uncharted waters, relying on its offense to dig itself out of holes. And with the pitching staff’s ERA sitting at 4.22, compared to a league-best 3.19 finish in 2012, there was a good deal of digging for the lineup to do.

In late May, when the story was much the same, R.J. Anderson wrote that the Rays still had plenty of time to “hold true to their identity,” which they seemingly had lost over the first two months. It took another month of sputtering for the pieces to fall into place, but if the past three-plus weeks are any indication, the Rays many expected to sting opponents from day one have finally arrived.

Sunday’s 4-3 win over the Jays, in which Chris Archer held Toronto to one run over seven frames to outduel R.A. Dickey, finished off a weekend sweep at the Rogers Centre and extended the Rays’ winning streak to five games. Tampa Bay has won 13 of its last 14 and 17 of its last 19, improving its overall record to 58-41 and climbing from fourth place to second in the American League East.

Evan Longoria whacked his 20th homer of the year in the victory, and Luke Scott and Kelly Johnson went back to back in the sixth inning to give Fernando Rodney the cushion he needed to finish off his 24th save. Archer, who tossed a five-hit shutout over the Astros in his final start before the break, has allowed only one earned run in his last three outings. He pitched five innings of three-run ball in the Rays’ 4-3 victory over the Tigers on June 29, which kicked off the ongoing 17-2 surge, and has emerged as a trustworthy member of Maddon’s rotation, contributing to the staff’s overall turnaround.

Over the last 19 games, the Rays’ arms have combined to amass a 2.14 ERA and a 160-to-44 K:BB ratio, permitting only 44 runs (42 earned) over 177 innings. That has ticked the team’s ERA for the season down to 3.81, good for 12th in the league; were it still 4.22, Tampa Bay would rank 22nd alongside the Angels and Jays, who also underperformed expectations early, but have—unlike the Rays—been unable to right their ships.

Meanwhile, Maddon’s offense has plated 94 runs, averaging 4.96 a game, more than enough for the Rays to double-up their opponents during their hike up the standings. Scott came into Sunday’s game batting .370/.452/.704 since June 29, and his sixth-inning long ball was his fifth homer during that span, over which he has appeared in 16 contests and started 15. Through June 28, the Rays were 28-29 in games in which they faced a right-handed starter; since then, they are 10-3, and Scott’s hot hitting is a big reason why.

Now 1 ½ games behind the Red Sox in the East and 3 ½ games up on the Rangers for the second wild card spot, the Rays—whose fate was dicey just three weeks ago—suddenly boast better than four-in-five odds of reaching the playoffs. They look like the team most of us thought they were. And with a four-game trip to Fenway Park set to begin this evening, they might soon enjoy a taste of first place for the first time since April 6.

Friday’s Matchup in Review
It was little consolation to the Pirates, who fell to the Reds 5-3 in game one of a three-game series, but Andrew McCutchen collected his first extra-base hit off of Mike Leake in nearly two years. The center fielder went 1-for-2 with a walk, a strikeout, and a home run, a sixth-inning solo shot that Russell Martin followed with one of his own two batters later.

The big fly came on an elevated, 0-1 curveball that caught too much of the outer third of the plate. Leake’s earlier success against McCutchen had come largely on the strength of his cutter and slider, and his command of both of those offerings, which he routinely placed on or just off of the outside corner. He struck out McCutchen with a knee-high slider in his second plate appearance, but was unable to locate those two crucial pitch types as well as he had in their earlier encounters.

The Reds and Pirates have six head-to-head games remaining, but they will not see each other again until the penultimate weekend of the regular season.

Matchup of the Day
If pre-break trends hold, tonight’s battle between Davis and Davis is likely to be the namesake mismatch of the year. That’s Chris Davis, who leads all left-handed hitters with a .366 TAv, versus Wade Davis, who has watched opposing left-handed batters tee off to the tune of a .321 mark in the same category.

The first baseman’s outstanding first half is well documented: He has left the rest of the league in the dust when it comes to hitting home runs, putting himself on track to top Roger Maris’ 61-homer output, which Davis regards as the single-season record. Along the way, he has turned himself into a more well-rounded offensive threat, walking more, striking out less, and driving the ball to all fields. If the season ended today, he would merit consideration for American League MVP honors.

The right-handed Davis has scuffled through an inauspicious first few months in Kansas City, struggling to erase the question marks about his arsenal that led the Rays to transition him into a bullpen role and then package him with James Shields to obtain Wil Myers and other prospects from the Royals. Among the pertinent doubts: Davis’ ability to handle opposite-handed hitters—which, if the aforementioned .321 TAv is any indication, remains inadequate.

With only a show-me changeup, Davis has no off-speed pitch with which to throw off left-handed hitters’ timing, and, as a result, they are able to sit on his fastball, sinker, and cutter. Enemy lefties are slugging at least .484 against each of those hard offerings this season, leaving the curveball as Davis’ only effective weapon.

He will need it against Chris Davis…

… because pitchers who throw him hard stuff in the strike zone aren’t often living to tell the tale. Wade Davis, back in his second full season as a big-league starter, watched Chris Davis crank a fastball above the letters out of the yard. And that heater came in at 95 mph, a few ticks faster than the right-hander’s 92.47 mph average in 2013.

Based on the limited data on the matchup page linked above, Wade Davis has generally worked upstairs when facing Chris Davis, and he’s tried to paint the outside corner when aiming for the knees. That may be a wise strategy, in this case, because the league’s leading slugger is most dangerous when he can extend his arms and only five of Davis’ 37 big flies have come on pitches that crossed the plate above the belt. Fastballs and cutters up, and curveballs whenever the count is favorable, appears to be Wade Davis’ best bet to beat the odds.

What to Watch for on Monday

  • Max Scherzer finally suffered his first loss of the season on July 13, coughing up four runs on eight hits over six innings of work with the Rangers in town. Nonetheless, the right-hander maintained a season-long streak of striking out at least six batters in every outing, and his K:BB for the season now stands at 152-to-31. Scherzer gets a much easier assignment in his first start after the All-Star break: his first date with the White Sox this season. Robin Ventura will send his ace to the bump to counter Scherzer, as Chris Sale looks to follow up his win against the Tigers on July 10 with a superior effort. The lefty allowed a season-high 10 hits in 6 1/3 innings while earning that victory, and served up two gopher balls in a start for the first time since April 13 (8:10 p.m. ET).
  • The Marlins can’t score. Sometimes we say that facetiously, but this is completely serious: Mike Redmond’s club has not pushed across a run in its last 37 innings of play, a drought that spans more than a week to the fourth inning of its last game before the All-Star break. The last major-league team to experience such a prolonged rut was the 1985 Astros. Fortunately for the Marlins, a trip to Coors Field is next on the docket, and if the mile-high air can’t cure their malaise, it is hard to say what will. They are set to dig in against Drew Pomeranz, who has failed to complete the fifth inning in any of his three big-league assignments this year, in the opener (8:40 p.m. ET).
  • Will Matt Garza make another start in a Cubs uniform? If he does, it will come tonight in Phoenix, where the right-hander is scheduled to square off with Tyler Skaggs and the Diamondbacks. Garza has rebuilt his trade value by holding opponents to no more than two runs in five consecutive starts, which has brought his ERA down from 6.26—where it stood on June 11—to 3.17. The Rangers appeared to be on the verge of acquiring Garza last week, but medical concerns put the kibosh on the deal. According to Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the halted swap would have sent four prospects (C.J. Edwards, Mike Olt, Neil Ramirez, and Luis Sardinas) to Chicago for the 29-year-old Garza and one other player. Garza will try to put some of the lingering concerns about his arm to bed with a strong showing in the desert; he tossed seven innings of two-run ball to defeat the D’backs on May 31 at Wrigley Field (9:40 p.m. ET).
  • After needing 148 pitches to no-hit the Padres on July 13, Tim Lincecum needed a breather—and he got one, thanks to the All-Star break. Giants manager Bruce Bochy tabbed Lincecum for his club’s fourth game following the Midsummer Classic, giving his arm nine days to recover. Next up for the 29-year-old righty, who has fanned double-digit batters in consecutive starts for the first time since September 29-October 7, 2010, is a battle with Bronson Arroyo and the Reds. Lincecum’s ERA is down to 4.26, its lowest point since the end of April, and he has permitted only two home runs over his last seven trips to the mound (10:15 p.m. ET).

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Coincidence? Maybe.

But, the Rays are 20-8 since Myers recall and in the playoffs if they started today, a statement that was not true the day he was recalled.
Another coincidence - All the Rays games in July have been against the 4 worst reams by record in the AL. Still got to beat them, but that is also a factor.
Granted the Rays are playing well, but mostly what they've done the last few weeks is feasting on a very favorable schedule.
Beginning June 24, before the break they played at 16 games at home against the Blue Jays (8 games under .500 on the road), Tigers (-1 road), White Sox (-16 road), Twins (-12 road) and Astros (-13 road), with just a trip to Houston for 4 against the Astros (-18 at home).
With the exception of taking 2 of 3 from the Tigers, including dueling Verlander to a draw and winning in extras, they won the games a good team is supposed to win against the four teams with the worst records in the AL.
The cream puff schedule is over. Let's see how they look in a couple weeks.
That all comes out in the wash by the end of a 192 game schedule. Even with interleague play, the most significant difference between the Rays schedule and all other AL East teams is that they play each other.
The Rays were hovering just above .500 with a pretty difficult schedule up until that point where you mentioned the schedule got significantly easier, but they knew that they had to do well in that easy span in order to play catch up and they accomplished more than enough.