Because sometimes, even the universe wants to keep things clean and tidy, the 2018 Tampa Bay Rays opened 6-13. The same 6-13 that the 2019 Red Sox carry into Tropicana Field for a three-game set beginning tonight, when Tampa uses an opener to oppose Eduardo Rodriguez. (That’ll be it for that little experiment this weekend, with Charlie Morton against Rick Porcello on Saturday and 4-0 Tyler Glasnow pairing with David Price on Sunday.)
Kevin Cash’s team drew Boston-Yankees-Boston to begin its 2018 season. It went 1-8, then played at a 94-win pace for the rest of the season and didn’t sniff the playoffs because the American League is bonkers now. The last 153 games of the year, Tampa actually had a winning record against all five AL playoff teams — Boston, New York, 103-win Houston, 97-win Oakland, and Cleveland.
The lesson, of course, is that starts matter. Three weeks in April can kill a season as efficiently as three weeks in September. At 6-13 a year ago, Tampa trailed the Red Sox by 11 games. Which, after Tampa (14-5) lost at home in 11 innings to Baltimore on Thursday night, will be the exact distance the Red Sox (6-13) will be behind them if they’re swept this weekend.
Time is a flat circle. And Alex Cora’s baseball team is playing the kind of flat, dull, focus-lacking baseball that makes a sweep a possibility against any opponent. Never mind one that’s won every series it’s played in 2019 and won’t take too kindly to Boston fans giving them rare packed houses at the St. Petersburg Pinball Machine.
“I do feel we’re closer than what people think, and everything starts with the pitching. Now, the guys are throwing five, six innings. We’re getting to the point that we’re very comfortable with them and they’re going to start giving us chances to win ballgames. Because the offense should pick up, sooner rather than later,” manager Alex Cora said during his weekly appearance on WEEI. “Now it’s just put everything together. We have to finish games. We have to play better. We know that. But I do feel like the rotation is almost right where it should be and we’re going to take off.
“It was a tough division last year. It’s a tough division this year. Take care of us right now, get to the point that we’re playing good baseball, and let’s see where it takes us.”
He best be right. Because whether Tampa’s start is a testament more to constructing a strong roster out of castoffs or the schedule makers giving them nine straight against the White Sox, Blue Jays, and Orioles, Boston’s hosts this weekend are feeling good, flying high, and burying the defending champs.
There’s a tendency to view the Rays as some science experiment run amok, last year’s 90-win season built on relievers starting games and more defensive shifts than all but one team. That’s less the case this April. Boston’s had more starters not get an out in the fifth than Tampa has, and the Rays are just about league average in shift usage.
They’re just old-fashioned good at everything. Tampa easily leads the league in team ERA and strikeout percentage — both will be hurt by Blake Snell’s absurd bathroom accident — and, in a very 2018 Red Sox way, are just obliterating the ball from every corner of their lineup.
In their last eight games, the Rays are averaging seven runs per game, with 18 homers and nearly half their hits (43 of 88) going for extra bases. They’ve racked up more 100+ mph hits than any team other than Milwaukee. For the season, they’ve outscored teams 22-3 in the first inning. Seven regulars are hitting at least .275, and four are slugging at least .500, led by Austin Meadows and his .364/.432/.697 slash line out of the leadoff spot. (Tampa got him in the Chris Archer trade last summer.)
Career utility man Tommy Pham hits No. 2 and has reached base in 49 of 50 games. (He was 4 for 5 with a homer on Thursday.) Defensive wizard Kevin Kiermaier, sitting sixth or seventh, had a 10-game hitting streak until Thursday’s loss. Former top prospect Willy Adames, batting ninth, got his streak to 10. Middling pro Avisail Garcia, who came in as a pinch-hitter in the seventh on Thursday, came up against Baltimore closer Mychal Givens in the ninth and made manager Kevin Cash look like a genius when he slugged a full-count fastball 447 feet to tie the game.
They are the ideal modern lineup: The third-highest swing rate at pitches in the zone and the fourth-lowest at pitches out of it. Have I mentioned the 19 stolen bases yet?
“The ebbs and flows of a season, an offense, are going to come and go,” manager Kevin Cash told reporters on Wednesday. “Right now we do have a lot of guys who are feeling really good at the plate, and they’re not only feeling good but they’re producing.”
Just what you want to see against Rodriguez, who’s inconsistent and whose strong start last week was helped by a lot of chase swings on his changeup, and Porcello, who’s given up 22 hits in three starts.
“Nothing has changed. The only thing that has changed is our start,” Cora said on Thursday. “I believe in what we do. I believe in the group that we have. We will turn around.”
They will, of course. They’re too good not to. If it doesn’t come this weekend, though, it’ll be time to start wondering if it happened too late.