Apr 20, 2014; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays first baseman James Loney (21) slides safe into home plate as New York Yankees catcher John Ryan Murphy (66) attempted to tag him out during the seventh inning at Tropicana Field. New York Yankees defeated the Tampa Bay Rays 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay Rays Face Rough Road in AL East

After four straight 90-win seasons, and an offseason where Tampa Bay Rays management went all-out to upgrade the team, many Rays fans, myself included, expected a quick start out of the gate this year. Instead, two-fifths of the team’s rotation went on the DL, with one key player, Matt Moore, out until next year because of Tommy John surgery. The offense has had some big games, including Saturday’s 16-run outburst against the New York Yankees, but also has disappeared for several games. Despite the offensive explosion Friday and Saturday against the Yankees, David DeJesus and the Rays’ bench players–Sean RodriguezLogan ForsytheBrandon Guyer, and Jose Molina–are still hitting under .200.  The Rays ended the third week of the season one game under .500 at the bottom of the AL East.

Of course, the season is far from over. The Rays still have a lot of positives to draw on. The Rays are only two games behind the first place Yankees. Moreover, the Yankees have allowed five more runs than they scored, while the Rays have scored one more run than they allowed. If that keeps up for the rest of the season, we would expect the Rays to have a better record than the Yankees. The Rays defense has been solid.  They were the last major league team to make an error, and we can expect their strong defense to help all their pitchers enormously. Bill James once wrote that most of what we think is pitching is actually defense. Knowing they have a good defense behind them makes pitchers confident about throwing strikes and letting opposing batters put balls in play.  A good defense converts the majority of those batted balls into outs.

The Rays still have plenty of time to play like the team so many of us thought they would be coming out of spring training. However, this is a team that still needs to find its key contributors. Even after the recent two day offensive explosion, there’s no one in the lineup, with the possible exception of Evan Longoria, who worries opposing pitchers in crucial situations.  The Rays had many opportunities to make something happen in extra innings against the Yankees, and squandered each chance.  The other four teams in the AL East are not going to roll over just because the Rays were the consensus preseason pick. The Tampa Bay Rays are going to have to fight hard every step of the way to win the pennant this year.  They need to find at least three or four players who they can count on to come through in the clutch, or despite all their talent they’ll be on the outside looking in during playoff time.

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