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Tampa Bay Rays: Looking Back at the Better-Than-Expected April

By Andrew Garrison
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It’s May 10th and we can start calling it the middle of May, but the Tampa Bay Rays exceeded expectations in April and it is worth discussing the month for a few minutes. The Rays are now 17-15 after going 12-10 in the season’s opening month.

The Tampa Bay Rays had a very mixed spring training season, finishing 15-13 but losing a lot more than 13 games. Starting pitchers Alex Cobb and Drew Smyly went down with injuries (which, we now know, are quite serious), while Alex Colome was delayed by visa issues and then was sidelined by pneumonia. The Rays got desperate enough that just before the season, they traded Mike Montgomery to the Seattle Mariners for Erasmo Ramirez as they hoped to add some much needed depth and experience to their rotation.

With the Rays a team filled with uncertainty on offense and facing several crucial injuries to its pitching staff, it was easy to picture an April much like 2014. At that time, the Rays finished the season’s opening month with an 11-16 record and were already 4.5 games back of first place. With so many questions about the team, the Rays knew the value of getting off to a quality start to this season. On the other side, they knew that their beginning to the season might go even worse.

The Rays opened the season at home against the 2014 AL East Division winners, the Baltimore Orioles. In the opener, Evan Longoria smashed a homer in the seventh inning off of Chris Tillman, but the Rays offense couldn’t muster much else against the Orioles’ pitching. The next day, Nate Karns was battered by the Orioles offense early on before rebounding later in his outing. Despite home runs by Logan Forsythe and Kevin Kiermaier, the Rays would start 0-2 on the season.

When the Orioles moved in to try and sweep the Rays, it was Jake Odorizzi who came up with a clutch performance. Odorizzi pitched shutout baseball for 6.2 innings allowing only two hits and striking out seven to notch the first win of the season for the Rays. They scored just two runs, but their pitching was good enough that they were able to win nonetheless.

The next series featured the Tampa Bay Rays traveling to face off against their Florida rivals, the Miami Marlins. The Marlins sent Dan Haren to the mound and he would only allow one run and four hits in six innings of work before being relieved. The Rays were down 8-1 in the seventh inning, but they mounted a terrific comeback with walks, timely hitting, and a huge three-run double by David DeJesus. By the end of the seventh, the game was tied 8-8. The Rays and Marlins would go back and forth the next two innings and then into extras with a 9-9 tie.

The Rays would lose the game in the tenth as the Marlins’ Christian Yellich hit a walk-off single. Although, the game was a loss, the Rays proved with their seven-run rally in the seventh that they had the ability to score runs in bunches and take advantage of an opponents’ mistakes. That confidence would help the Rays go on their first four-game wining streak of the season.

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In the next game against the Marlins, the Rays sent Chris Archer back to the mound and this time he threw a gem, seven innings of one-hit ball with five strikeouts. Kevin Jepsen and Brad Boxberger finished off the game with ease. Then, in the final game of the Marlins-Rays series, it would be the offensive and defensive heroics of DeJesus that would alter the game. DeJesus hit a tie-breaking three-run homer in the fifth and made a run-saving catch to ensure the Rays kept the lead. Nate Karns pitched very well for seven innings allowing only two run and two hits while striking out six.

When the Rays traveled to play the Toronto Blue Jays, they continued to show their strength in quality pitching. The Rays would win Game 1 as Jake Odorizzi out-dueled R.A. Dickey by throwing eight solid innings allowing one run on two hits. DeJesus and Steven Souza Jr. would provide two clutch two-out RBI’s. 

The next game featured Souza Jr being the unlikely hero with a 3-for-5 day including his first homer of the season and the winning run scored. The Rays would go on to win the game 3-2, locking up their fourth consecutive win. Considering that Souza was hitting a mere .158 on the season, the game proved to be a turning point in the young outfielder’s April. The following game on Jackie Robinson day didn’t fare well for the Rays. Despite Souza hitting his second homer of the year,  the Rays lost as starting pitcher Erasmo Ramirez was knocked around by the Blue Jays’ lineup.

To close out the series, the Rays sent Archer back to the mound and he had his best start of the season to date. Archer shut down the Jays through seven innings allowing only two hits and striking out eleven to earn his second win of the year. Once more, Souza and DeJesus assisted by driving in runs during the game, showing that a few hot hitters were all the Rays needed given that their talented pitching staff could shut down anyone.

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The Rays felt confident going into a weekend series against the Yankees, who were also hitting their stride. Unfortunately, the Yankees would sweep the Rays. The infamous Alex Rodriguez slugged two homers and drove in four runs during the first game. In the second game of the series, the Yankees bats exploded against Odorizzi, C.J. Riefenhauser, and Grant Balfour. Chris Young homered and also drove in four. Meanwhile Masahiro Tanaka threw seven strong innings of two-hit ball and eight strikeouts over the Rays. To close out the sweep, the Yankees won 5-3 over the Rays. Souza Jr. drove in three runs for the Rays, but it simply wasn’t enough.

After a much needed day off, the Rays faced the Boston Red Sox. Archer was very solid as he allowed one run through seven innings of work, striking out nine Red Sox and while walking only one. However, the combination of Wade Miley and the Red Sox bullpen didn’t allow a run and Archer was the hard-luck loser as the Rays lost 1-0. This four game skid was the worst portion of the Rays April by far.

The Rays bounced back the following night. Down 5-1 to the Red Sox in the bottom of the sixth, the Rays rallied with four runs in the sixth and added two more in the seventh. Then the combination of Brad Boxberger, Kevin Jepsen, and Steve Geltz shut down the Red Sox hitters for the W. Earlier in the game Souza hit his fourth homer of the season, raising his batting average to .288.

The rubber match was a pitching duel between Jake Odorizzi and Clay Buchholz. Despite Buchholz striking out ten, the game would be decided by bullpens. Catcher Rene Rivera drove in the game-winning RBI in walk-off fashion as the Rays won in ninth.

Feeling good, the Rays would welcome the Blue Jays again and the offense would have its biggest day of the year. Drew Smyly returned from injury but failed to get out of the fifth inning. That didn’t matter because the Rays’ bats were on fire that day in the team’s 12-3 victory. James Loney and Rene Rivera hit their first homers of the year and Tim Beckham his third. The Rays would continue their hot streak with a 4-2 victory the following day. James Loney, Evan Longoria, and Tim Beckham all drove in crucial runs with doubles.

In the final game of the series, Archer returned and once more shut down the Jays through seven solid innings, allowing two hits and striking out seven. The Rays would go on to win 5-1 and their fifth win in a row.

Once again in high spirits, the Rays traveled to New York to face the Yankees. Once more, the Yankees would quiet the Rays with a 4-1 loss thanks in large part to a Brian McCann home run. The following day, the Rays lost again as Jake Odorizzi was pounded by Yankee bats. Again it would be McCann with a three-RBI night that would drop the Rays by a score of 4-2.

Finally, in the last game of the series, the Rays would beat the Yankees 3-2 in a 13-inning marathon game with the go-ahead RBI coming from James Loney. Although he did not earn the win, Drew Smyly was impressive in six innings of work, allowing two runs on four hits while striking out ten Yankees. This game would be a perfect finish for the Rays’ April–they had an off-day on April 30th.

The Rays opened the season with many questions. Could their pitching staff hold up despite injuries? How much offense could their lineup produce with all these new additions? Were they rebuilding or just featuring a different look?

In all, the Rays finished April with a 12-10 record, just one game behind the Yankees for first place. The team endured some tough spots and battled through injuries, but the team united in these troubled times. They know that plenty of people think they aren’t good enough to win the American League East, but they also know that they can’t be concerned by that.

The Tampa Bay Rays are seeking to prove to everyone that though they may be young and inexperienced, they are loaded with talented players united together under a common cause. These Rays have heart, and while the future of the team looks bright, so do the Rays of 2015. They have work to do over these next several months, but they also showed us that they have the ability to make 2014 simply a one-year hiatus from the tremendous success this team has delivered since 2008.

Next: Tampa Bay Rays Game 32: Jake Odorizzi Solid But Offense Lacking

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