ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Carl Crawford can’t think of a better way for surging Tampa Bay to resume the season than a trip to what is sure to be an emotionally-charged Yankee Stadium.
The All-Star leftfielder has batted .429 over his past 20 games, helping the Rays steady themselves following a poor June. Tampa Bays has won 10 of 12 and reached the All-Star break with the second-best record in baseball (54-34) – two games behind first-place New York.
“I guess there’s not a better place to start to see how things are going to be,” Crawford said, looking ahead to a three-game series that begins tonight.
Tampa Bay has rebounded from going 11-14 in June to win nine of its first 11 in July to climb back to a season-best 20 games over .500 – the club’s best record at the All-Star break.
The Rays were an MLB-best 32-12 through May 23, when they held a six-game lead over the Yankees and an 8 1/2-game advantage over Boston in the American League East. They fell behind both division rivals during a dismal stretch in which they were no-hit for the second time this season and dropped nine games in the standings.
After going 6-1 on a home stand leading into the break – including a three-game sweep of the Red Sox – the Rays feel they’ve righted themselves and are bracing for what they expect to be a three-team race to the finish.
“They’re not going away … and we’re not going away,” Maddon said. “It’s going to be fun all summer.”
The formula for success has been much the same as two years ago, when Tampa Bay made an improbable run to World Series – timely hitting, strong starting pitching, a better than expected bullpen and solid defense.
Inconsistent hitting undermined the team in June, with the low point coming during a three-game series in which the Rays managed just seven hits off an Arizona pitching staff that ranked among the worst in the majors.
In addition to losing two of the three games, they were no-hit by former Ray Edwin Jackson to become the first team in major league history to be no-hit three times within a span of 12 months.
Maddon said he was never concerned because even though the offense was struggling, the Rays continued to pitch well, play good defense and avoid being swept in any series.
“You’re always going to have those moments not being so good, but if you can avoid long losing streaks, you have a better chance of turning it around,” the manager said. “We just kept our heads above water the whole time, kept coming up for air.”
The timely hitting that was such a big part of the team’s torrid start returned during a road trip in which Tampa Bay won four of six at Boston and Minnesota, then continued when the Rays returned home to take six of seven from the Red Sox and the Cleveland Indians.
The manager also finds it comforting that the Rays have the second-best record in baseball without getting expected offensive production from players such as Upton (.230), Jason Bartlett (.231) and Carlos Pena, who has a team-high 18 homers but is batting just .203.