Rays doing it with ... their bats?
Tampa Bay's formula for success has made a 180-degree turn toward offense
The sounds of the Doors and the Dead and whatever other classic rock concoction fits the mood of the moment still emanate from Joe Maddon's office. And the laid-back vibe that has allowed, in recent weeks, a DJ, a magician and a mariachi band to set up shop in the clubhouse is still very much alive.
It's when the Tampa Bay Rays take the field that things begin to look distinctly different this season.
And in this case, different is not necessarily a bad thing.
The Rays are -- dare we say -- an offensive juggernaut right now. They scored the most runs per game in all the Majors last month, taking full advantage of the presence and production that comes from having a healthy Evan Longoria in the middle of the order and reaping the benefits of rebound seasons by offseason additions James Loney and Kelly Johnson.
"Our guys have done a good job," hitting coach Derek Shelton said. "I think the big thing is we've been able to sustain innings with contact. It's something in the past we've been a little deficient on."
What the Rays don't do as well -- at least not consistently -- is pitch. And therein lies one of the more stunning identity shifts in the big leagues this season.
As expected, Tampa Bay has felt the absence of James Shields' innings-eating, and the club has felt the effects of the unexpected -- a subpar showing from and an injury to reigning AL Cy Young Award winner David Price.
The bullpen? Oh, brother. Even if you assumed Fernando Rodney would take a big step back from his 2012 dominance (not a particularly bold assumption), you didn't necessarily assume the Rays would have some of the worst relief peripherals in the big leagues, with 16 blown leads -- four of them in the ninth inning.
This leaves us with a team forced to outhit its pitching deficiencies, and this sentence feels wrong even as I type it.
But if you look at the standings the way Maddon looks at them, you'll see it's working surprisingly well so far.
"I think we're only behind two or three in the loss column," Maddon said. "That's what I look at all the time is the loss column. So with all of our maladies regarding holding leads or closing games, we're still in good position, which is a good sign because I have so much faith that our pitching is going to come back."
Following Sunday's win over the Indians -- an 11-3 offensive onslaught that perfectly fit the '13 script -- the Rays are, indeed, just two games back of the first-place Red Sox in the loss column in the odd and unpredictable AL East. They are on pace for 90-plus wins for the fifth time in the past six years, so their tradition of low-cost excellence remains remarkably intact.
They're just doing it a different way.
"Very different," said Ben Zobrist, the longest tenured Ray. "I don't think it's our formula for winning, but it's been interesting to see an offense that we didn't expect to hit as well as we've hit. That's what's been a pleasant surprise."
What's surprising is that they've done it without any contributions yet from highly touted hitting prospect Wil Myers, who is in the midst of a power surge at Triple-A Durham. Of course, Tampa Bay already has a highly touted hitter batting fourth, and Longoria's play both at the hot corner and at the plate (.305/.361/.527) has been MVP-caliber, hammering home the notion of what the Rays were missing last year when Longoria played just 74 games because of a hamstring injury.
"He changes the lineup completely," Shelton said. "I don't think you understand the full scope of it until you see him out of it for a lengthy period of time like we did last year. It changes not only from the fact that he's in the middle, but he puts everybody else where they should go. You know you don't have to mix and match in the middle for production."
Longoria has become increasingly selective in his sixth season. He's swinging at a smaller percentage of balls outside the strike zone (21.8) than ever, according to FanGraphs.com.
But Longoria's health and maturation is only part of the offensive picture, as Loney's return to an offensive level last sniffed in his early days with the Dodgers (.326/.394/.525) has provided protection for Longoria in the No. 5 spot and Johnson (.280/.346/.524) has been one of the more productive left fielders in the big leagues. The Rays have also seen a major uptick in offensive performance from the much-maligned Yunel Escobar, who hit just .169 in April but responded with a .287 average and a .765 OPS in May.
"Without that tough start, he'd be talked about very highly among inner baseball circles," Maddon said. "You have to look under the hood at what he's done the last month."
That Tampa Bay is getting such strong showings from imported players is not exactly a new development. It has long seemed to be part of its clubhouse culture.
"I think this environment helps people to become the best version of themselves as a player," Zobrist said.
But this level of team-wide offensive production is a new development, and the Rays would be lost without it. Through two months of the season, they've already cycled through eight starting pitchers (as many as they used in all of 2012), with mixed results. While Matt Moore has made the leap (8-0, 2.18 ERA) and Alex Cobb is right behind him (6-2, 2.66), getting consistent, quality starts from Jeremy Hellickson and Roberto Hernandez has been a challenge, and prospects Jake Odorizzi and Chris Archer have labored thus far in their turns in the rotation with Price out.
"I think David not being on the road with us has made a difference," Moore said. "I tell him all the time, 'I miss you, man, how'd your game of catch go?' I don't think anybody's trying to take David's spot, because you can't replace David. Nobody here can do what David did for us, because he did so much more than what he does on the mound."
Maybe Tampa Bay's pitching staff won't be the same until Price is back on the mound and pitching like he has in the past. Absent their ace, though, the Rays have demonstrated that they know another way to win at this level. It might look a bit different, but they are still a big factor in the East.