Jul 23, 2014; St. Louis, MO, USA; Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria (3) hits a sacrifice fly off of St. Louis Cardinals relief pitcher Randy Choate (not pictured) during the seventh inning at Busch Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Five Key Players for the Tampa Bay Rays Down the Stretch

Baseball is a game that uses every man on the 25-man roster, but there are always some players that are more important than others. That is especially true when your team is 7.5 games out of first place and there are two months left in the season. Who are those most important players for the Tampa Bay Rays? Here are the players on my top five list.

 Jeremy Hellickson

Any path to the top of the AL East for the Rays is going to go through starting pitching. Running out a pitcher every five days that has a good chance of going seven innings and getting the victory is huge. And that’s where the return of Jeremy Hellickson fits into the game plan. Right now, the Rays have four solid starters in David Price, Alex Cobb, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi. They have won all of the games in the Rays recent seven game winning streak. The fifth starter spot, though, has been problematic. Hellickson has been an every fifth game starter from 2011-2013. While his ERA was over 5.00 last year, he was Rookie of the Year and a frontline starter in his first two years. He needs to find some fraction of his 2011-2012 form.

Grant Balfour

Once the five-man rotation has been established, you need at least three solid relief pitchers to finish of the game. Right now the Rays only have Jake McGee and Brad Boxberger. In the past, either Joel Peralta or Grant Balfour would have been the third. However, Peralta seems to be showing the effects of being 38 years old and throwing 270 innings in the last four years. At this point, he’s probably better suited as a less stressful middle-inning reliever. That leads us to Balfour, who was paid $12 million in the offseason to be the Rays’ closer. Unfortunately, he can’t find the strike zone and has a 36-29 strikeout to walk ratio. Jim Hickey needs to get him straightened out or too many solid starting performances will turn into late-inning losses.

Ryan Hanigan

The Rays thought they had their longstanding catching problem solved when they traded for Hanigan and signed him to a three-year extension. However, while he has shown good defense and game-calling, he hasn’t provided much offense since his hot start and he can’t stay healthy. This should have not come as a big surprise for the Rays as he has only played in 100 games or more one of the five full seasons with Cincinnati and managed just a .198/.306/.261 slash line in 2013. That being said, the Rays were obviously looking for more from Hanigan, and with Jose Molina and Curt Casali as the alternatives, they need it badly.

Evan Longoria

Until this year, Longoria was the straw that stirred the drink. He was the home run in the bottom of the ninth, the guy that drives in runs with two outs, and never leaves a man on third base. Somehow, he has lost all of that this year. He appears mechanically out of sync, with his swinging reminding you of B. J. Upton. He can’t handle inside pitches. Currently, among all major leaguers, Longoria is 70th in home runs, 102nd in doubles, 90th in extra base hits, and 98th in slugging percentage. Those are not exactly MVP numbers. To sum it up, for most of this season he has been a mess at the plate. Lately, he has looked better, but he’s still not there. In Wednesday night’s game against the Cardinals, he hit into a double play, and looked bad striking out twice. In the fourth at-bat, he finally drove in a run with a sacrifice fly. The Rays are short on power and clutch hitting. Those are Longoria’s game. He had better find it again if the Rays are to play October baseball.

 Ben Zobrist

If Longoria is the straw that stirs the drink, Zobrist has been the glue that has held the team together. And like Longoria, Zobrist’s 2014 performance has not lived up to expectations. His batting average and OPS are below any of the last three years and he has been prone to longer and deeper slumps. He is on track to drive in less than fifty runs versus an average of 80 the last five years. On the defensive side, Zobrist has committed 8 errors in 102 games versus 5 errors in all of 2013. Overall, his play has mirrored the unexplainable issues that plagued the Rays in the first half of the season. Zobrist does not need to be Longoria at the plate, but if the Rays are going to make the playoffs, he needs to be the player Rays fans are used to seeing.

Overall, the Tampa Bay Rays have a nice collection of ballplayers, but they are not strong enough as a team to have key players underachieve. The additions of Odorizzi, Boxberger, Kevin Kiermaier, and Brandon Guyer have helped, but these critical players must show more the rest of the season or the Rays will be spectators in October.

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Tags: Ben Zobrist Evan Longoria Jeremy Hellickson Tampa Bay Rays

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