Joe Maddon used a football analogy to describe the play of his Rays up to this point in the season. “It’s like you play the worst first half of football possible in the Super Bowl, but still only trail by a touchdown at halftime,” last season’s American League Manager of the Year said. Maddon was referring to his beloved Arizona Cardinals and their performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl in February.

Maddon had a bird’s-eye view from the loge level at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa as the Cardinals fought back, only to lose in the final seconds, ruining what would have been a perfect Cinderella story ending to their first trip to the Super Bowl. Maddon understood all too well the feeling of bucking the odds to reach a sport’s biggest stage, only to lose. After all, the Rays did go from having the worst record in the major leagues in 2008 to the World Series in 2009, before losing to the Phillies in five games.

The Rays’ goal remains the same as what Maddon had stated it was in the moments after their Game Five loss in Philadelphia last October: they want to get back to the World Series and win it this year. Yet the Rays are 23-25 and in fourth place in the AL East, five games off the pace of the division-leading Red Sox. Maddon, however, is undaunted. “People tend to forget that we had our share of adversity last season,” said Maddon. “We started slowly. We had some key injuries along the way. We lost our first seven games coming out of the All-Star break. People tend to forget the bad stuff as time passes, but we had our share of bad things happen, and our guys were able to survive the bad times. We can draw on that experience now. We’re going through adversity, and it’s the time when we need to coach them up more and the players need to rely on each other more. You can grow through adversity if you choose, and I really believe our guys will. If you take a walk through our clubhouse, you’ll see that the vibe is still good. Everything is upbeat.”

Upbeat, maybe, but it’s at a time when seemingly everyone in a Rays’ uniform is beat up. The Rays have lost their double-play combination over the past two days; second baseman Akinori Iwamura tore knee ligaments Monday that will sideline him for the remainder of the season, and shortstop Jason Bartlett was placed on the disabled list Tuesday with a sprained ankle. That came after left-handed starter Scott Kazmir (quadriceps) and closer Troy Percival (shoulder) had gone on the DL last Friday, joining designated hitter Pat Burrell, the Rays’ big off-season acquisition, who has been out since May 11 with a neck strain.

Maddon, though, remains the same positive and calm influence, displaying the type of demeanor that has helped raise the Rays from being the punch line of all those jokes on late-night television, to one of most respected organizations in baseball. “It’s his personality,” first baseman Carlos Pena said. “He is so consistent with his personality. He is upbeat and positive every day. He never gets down. He never looks worried. He knows how to relate to people. He puts the players in a comfort zone and knows how to bring out the best in all of us. Yet he also has the respect of every person in this clubhouse. It’s always been a paradox to me how a manager can get close enough to relate to his players, but keep that space to where you know he is in charge. Joe has the perfect balance. We love him and we respect him.”

Maddon would like to see better balance from his team, and soon. The Rays lead the major leagues in scoring with an average of 5.8 runs per game, are eighth in runs allowed with a 5.0 average, but just 19th with a .686 Defensive Efficiency. Matt Garza (1.9 SNLVAR) and James Shields (1.5) have been a fine duo at the top of the rotation, and Jeff Niemann (0.9) has been one of the better fifth starters in the majors. However, the Rays have gotten literally nothing from former ace Kazmir (his SNLVAR is 0.0), and Andy Sonnanstine‘s little better with a 0.2 SNLVAR, making their decision to trade Edwin Jackson to the Tigers in the offseason for outfielder Matt Joyce (now at Triple-A Durham) seem all the more questionable.

The bullpen has been shaky as the Rays have no one in the top 50 in the majors in WXRL, with Dan Wheeler the team leader at 0.585, and the defense has been a major disappointment after the Rays went from worst in 2007 to first in 2008 in Defensive Efficiency. Now the Rays will be counting on rookie shortstop Reid Brignac in some combination with utility players Willy Aybar and Ben Zobrist at second base to man the middle infield in the absence of Iwamura and Bartlett. “We took a lot of pride in our defense last season, and I think it was undoubtedly as much a factor as anything in our ascension,” Maddon said. “Our pitching and defense has to get better for us to get to where we want to go.”

Offense certainly hasn’t been the problem; Bartlett (.346), third baseman Evan Longoria (.341), Zobrist (.328), and Pena (.319) are among the top 13 in the AL in EqA. Bartlett’s jump from his .255 mark of last season has been astonishing. While Maddon understands things such as small sample size better than most managers, he does not believe that Bartlett’s hot start is a fluke. “He has been hitting everything hard all year, right from opening day,” Maddon said. “I think it’s a case of a player coming into his own as a hitter.”

Maddon also understands regression to the mean, and he realizes that his entire hitting attack is due, and that it will likely begin happening soon. “A lot of the numbers we have been putting up as an offense, I don’t even understand them because they have been astonishing,” Maddon said. “I don’t see how it can continue. It’s why we have to pitch and catch the ball better eventually, which I believe we’re very capable of doing.”

Nolan Ryan promised improved pitching when he took over as the Rangers‘ team president prior to last season, and the Hall of Fame pitcher is delivering this year. The Rangers are 16th in the majors in runs allowed with an average of 4.8 a game under first-year pitching coach Mike Maddux, after finishing last with a 6.0 average last season.

Ryan can take at least some of the credit for the Rangers’ improvement. It was during a heart-to-heart talk with right-hander Kevin Millwood during the final month of last season that the groundwork was laid for 2009. Millwood had continually been hampered by a strained groin in 2008, and some in the organization suspected that he enjoyed life on the disabled list so much that he didn’t try very hard to work his way back onto the active roster. “It was a session of honesty,” Ryan told Randy Galloway of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. “I told Kevin about what I thought of his conditioning and everything else. There was no yelling involved. It was just talking. Kevin seemed to me to be in shock about what he was hearing, but I was saying the same things to him as I did my sons when they were growing up. If I disapproved, I wanted them to know it.”

Millwood reported to spring training in excellent shape, and Ryan believes that, along with the addition of Maddux, Millwood set the tone for the Rangers’ pitching turnaround. “Kevin bought totally into the concept of starters being mentally and physically prepared to work deep into games, of not hiding behind pitch counts and so on,” Ryan said. “He provided the standard for the rest of the starters. They followed his lead. This alone made Mike’s job and Mike’s message a lot easier. And when the season started, all that carried over. Kevin has been the leader of the staff. I’m really proud of him. In today’s game, you know how it goes. A lot of people would have been offended, or gotten mad at me and rebelled. Kevin took it the other way.”

Millwood and Scott Feldman lead the Rangers with 1.7 SNLVAR. “I’m excited about what we’re seeing, but it’s early, too,” Ryan said. “I know our pitching will always be doubted until we do it over the course of the summer. I just think Kevin’s leadership deserves a lot of credit for the season getting started on this positive tone.”

Matt Wieters, the most heralded catching prospect of this millennium, will make his major league debut on Friday night for the Orioles when they host the Tigers. That will be a nice diversion for Baltimore, as the club seems to be on its way to a 12th consecutive losing season, and for its fans, whose patience has been replaced by apathy (consider that attendance was just 10,130 on Tuesday night at Camden Yards), and who are now clamoring for president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail to begin a full-scale youth movement.

While the Orioles are calling on Wieters after bringing up outfielder Nolan Reimold from their restocked farm system earlier this month, don’t expect a rush of youngsters coming to Baltimore in the next few weeks. “Time helps you make better decisions,” MacPhail told the Baltimore Sun‘s Peter Schmuck about his patient approach. “There is no certainty that your decisions are going to work, but the more time you can let things percolate, the more likely you’re going to come to a decision you’re comfortable with.”

MacPhail admits that it’s difficult to watch the Orioles continue to lose on his watch. It has been doubly hard to watch the Rays go from worst to first in the powerful AL East last season, and the Blue Jays make an early-season run at the top this year while the Orioles remain stuck in neutral, but MacPhail insists that sticking to his convictions is the only way he can make the Orioles competitive again. “I have the same reactions as everybody else, but I have to temper that with what I think is in the best interests of the Orioles long-term,” he said. “I think there is only one path that will get this organization where it wants to go. Things don’t change overnight. We really have made more progress than what you could have reasonably assumed.”

Maddon, it turns out, wasn’t the only person at fault in the May 17 game against the Indians in which the Rays lost the designated hitter because he listed two third basemen on the lineup card, forcing that night’s pitcher, Andy Sonnanstine, to bat third. Maddon had marked both Longoria and Zobrist as playing third when Longoria was supposed to serve as the DH. The umpires allowed Longoria to remain eligible to play in the game, and Major League Baseball umpiring vice president Mike Port told the St. Petersburg Times‘ Marc Topkin that they made a mistake in doing so. “After review, it is our consensus that Evan Longoria should not have been allowed to [later] enter the game,” Port said.

Port also said that the umpires goofed in not catching the mistake when Rays third-base coach Tom Foley presented the card in the pre-game meeting at home plate. The session was cut short because the Rays had taken the field with a local youth team, and home-plate umpire Ted Barrett wanted to get behind the plate for Sonnanstine’s warm-up pitches. “The lineup problem should have been caught by the plate umpire when the lineup cards were presented,” Port said. “No excuse intended, but it is my understanding there were some distractions that took the umpire out of his usual home-plate meeting agenda. Beyond that, the rules provide that, ‘teams should not be trapped later by some mistake that obviously was inadvertent and which can be corrected before the game starts.'”

Port also said that all major league umpires have received memos in the last few days reminding them about the importance of checking the lineup cards before the game starts.

Scouts’ observations on various major league players:

  • Athletics reliever Andrew Bailey: “He’s got a good arm, but I thought [manager] Bob Geren was jumping the gun by putting the kid in save situations so early in his career. But the kid has the guts to do it. I like him a lot.”

  • Mariners third baseman Adrian Beltre: “He must have woken one morning last week and realized he is a free agent at the end of the season, because he’s finally starting to swing the bat like he means it. The guy still has so much talent, but it seems like he only turns the switch on when the mood hits him.”

  • Nationals left-hander Ross Detwiler: “I thought they were taking a bit of a gamble by calling him up from Double-A, but he doesn’t look scared and he’s got the stuff to be a good big-league starting pitcher.”

  • Pirates left-hander Zach Duke: “He’s pitching with so much more confidence than the last couple of years. He’s not an overpowering guy, but he’s attacking the strike zone more and spotting his pitches better.”

  • Braves shortstop Yunel Escobar: “You can tell his hip is really bothering him. He’s got great range, but he’s not getting to balls he normally gets to, and he’s a step slow running down the line.”

  • Padres infielder Edgar Gonzalez: “He’s not a good defensive player but he can really swing the bat. Too bad he wasn’t in the American League, because he could give you some good at-bats as a DH.”

  • Astros left-hander Mike Hampton: “He still goes out and battles, but he’s out of bullets. All those injuries have robbed him of his stuff, and it’s sad to see because he was so great when he was healthy.”

  • Rangers right-hander Derek Holland: “You can see why the Rangers love this kid so much, because not only does he have a good stuff, but he knows how to pitch, and he’s a bulldog. He’s got a great future ahead of him.”

  • Phillies closer Brad Lidge: “The Phillies are learning what the Astros already knew. When this guy is good, he’s great, but he can be absolutely awful when he gets in a funk.”

  • Diamondbacks second baseman Felipe Lopez: “I keep waiting for the bottom to fall out, but he’s been raking since Opening Day. Maybe he’s finally found a home in Arizona. He seems to be playing harder and more consistently than I ever remember.”

  • Indians center fielder Grady Sizemore: “I know his numbers are awful, but he’s not missing pitches by much. He’s just a little off with his swing, and you can see that he’s on the verge of breaking out just about any day now.”

  • Yankees right-hander Chien-Ming Wang: “He looks 100 percent better than he did before he went on the disabled list. He’s able to drive the ball down in the strike zone again, which is what he has to do to be successful.”

Three series to watch this weekend with probable pitching matchups:

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I know it's strange to talk about an offensive weakness when Tampa leads the AL in runs, but how long can Maddon leave B.J. Upton in the leadoff slot? His AVG is under .200 and his OBP is under .300. I mean, don't you have to drop him almost on general principle? Crawford could lead off, right?
"the Rays did go from having the worst record in the major leagues in 2008 to the World Series in 2009, before losing to the Phillies in five games." Ummm... you meant worst record in 2007 and World Series in 2008, right?
Derek Holland is a lefty.
With Weiters coming in Friday, the Orioles will already have substantially changed its front line players and rotation, making them substantially younger. Reimold has become the virtually every day left fielder, rendering Pie a fourth outfielder. Weiters replaces Zaun at catcher. The Opening Day rotation was Guthrie, Uehara, Simon, Hendrickson and Eaton. Simon is out for the year with an injury. Eaton has been cut. Hendrickson has been moved to the bullpen. Uehara just went on the DL with a hamstring. Now the rotation has only one player who started the year in the rotation. Instead, the rotation is now Guthrie, Hill, Bergerson, Berken and Gonzales. The rotation has been rebuilt from the minor leagues, but the cream of Tillman, Matusz and Arrieta have not come up yet. The youth movement has certainly begun, but there is more to come.
wtf does "hiding behind pitch counts" mean?
"There, that's my 100 pitches, I'm done. What? It's only the fourth inning? Sorry guys, not my fault..."