Rays midterm report
Club looking forward to first pennant race in franchise history
ST. PETERSBURG -- Nobody expected the Rays to be anywhere near the top of the American League East by the midway point, yet here they are, seemingly in control of their own destiny.
Looking toward the second half, the Rays would like nothing better than to sustain what they have done in the first half and avoid the injuries that could derail the team's incredible roll.
Overcoming injuries and suspensions goes a long way toward explaining what's happened to the Rays in the first half.
Basically, the team lost staff ace Scott Kazmir for the first month; it has not had outfielder Rocco Baldelli all season; Matt Garza, Dioner Navarro, Cliff Floyd, Willy Aybar and Carlos Pena missed significant time due to injuries; and it lost Carl Crawford, James Shields, Edwin Jackson, Akinori Iwamura and Jonny Gomes for different periods of time because of suspensions stemming from the June 5 fracas that took place in Boston. Finally, the Rays have entered the second half of the season with Jason Bartlett, Troy Percival and Al Reyes on the disabled list.
Organization depth and a new attitude are largely responsible for helping the Rays move past those obstacles, while fueling hope that they can finish what they've started.
"This team was ready to be challenged, and they've done a great job," Kazmir said. "We're young and we're hungry to win and just to be respected. Believe me, coming from where we've been, it's really something to feel like we have a shot and that we're talking about the possibility of having an October. I'm really happy about that."
Club MVP: J.P. Howell is the choice by virtue of his enormous impact in the bullpen, but this isn't an automatic. Kazmir, third baseman Evan Longoria and catcher Navarro have all excelled as well.
Call him "Ace": Kazmir is the leader of the rotation and the staff, but Shields and Garza are not far behind.
Greatest strength: Pitching and defense. The Rays have young power arms in their rotation, a solid bullpen and impact players at several positions, such as Crawford in left, B.J. Upton in center and Longoria at third. Any one of these three players routinely turns a hit into an out in almost every game.
Biggest problem: Keeping the young Rays players believing that they can accomplish great things remains manager Joe Maddon's biggest challenge. The health of the bullpen could potentially prove devastating.
Biggest surprise: Navarro's hitting. The Rays catcher finished below the Mendoza Line during the first half of 2007. Now he brings a solid approach to the plate for most at-bats and the results have been astounding.
Team needs: A right-handed bat to play right field is the most popular perception, but Maddon has done a nice job mixing and matching with left-handed-hitting Gabe Gross and Eric Hinske and right-handed-hitting Gomes. Depending on Percival's health, the bullpen's performance in his absence will determine if the Rays need to acquire a closer.
LHP Kazmir -- Missed the first month with a left elbow strain.
OF Floyd -- Missed 29 games because of right knee surgery.
1B Pena -- Missed 19 games with a broken left index finger.
RHP Garza -- Missed three turns in the rotation recovering from radial nerve irritation.
OF Baldelli -- Missed the first half with a mitochondrial disorder, which leaves him in a constant state of fatigue.
RHP Gary Glover -- Missed 14 games with right shoulder tendinitis.
C Navarro -- Experienced a freak accident at Yankee Stadium that saw him cut his hand, which required stitches and forced him to miss 16 games.
RHP Reyes -- A right shoulder impingement has twice put him on the disabled list.
IF Aybar -- Missed 45 games due to a left hamstring strain.
SS Bartlett -- Out with a right knee sprain and currently on the disabled list.
RHP Percival -- Is currently on the disabled list for the second time with a left hamstring strain.
He said it: "We've thought it's legit from Day 1, and it's all about what we think about ourselves in here. I don't know what the media thinks or what ESPN thinks or whatever. But in here, it's different. We believe in here, and that's all that matters. We look to one another, and we've got confidence in each other, and we know that everybody's going to get it done." -- Longoria
Mark your calendar: Aug. 22-24 at Chicago White Sox; Sept. 2-4 vs. New York Yankees; Sept. 8-10 at Boston; Sept 12-14 at Yankees; Sept. 15-17 vs. Boston.
Fearless second-half prediction: The Rays will remain in contention until the end of the season and come away with their first playoff appearance in club history.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.