Opposite dugout: Rotation has been key to Rays’ renaissance

rays-logo.jpgManager: Joe Maddon, ninth year
Record: 64-66
Last 10 games: 5-5
Who to watch: 3B Evan Longoria (.252/.323/.391, 21 doubles, 16 HR, 72 RBIs); RF Kevin Kiermaier (.275/.327/.482, 28 extra-base hits, 30 RBIs); RHP Alex Cobb (9-6, 3.01 ERA, 1.15 WHIP); RHP Jeremy Hellickson (1-2, 2.61 ERA, 1.08 WHIP)
Season series vs. O’s: 4-8, 41 runs scored, 52 runs against

Pitching probables
Aug. 25: Jake Odorizzi vs. Chris Tillman, 7 p.m., MASN2 HD
Aug. 26: Alex Cobb vs. Wei-Yin Chen, 7 p.m., MASN2 HD
Aug. 27: Drew Smyly vs. Kevin Gausman, 7 p.m., MASN2 HD
Aug. 28: Jeremy Hellickson vs. Bud Norris, 7 p.m., MASN HD

Series breakdown
There was a time this year that it looked like the Rays would challenge more for the first pick in the draft than a playoff spot.

But that moment passed, as Tampa Bay pulled itself out of last place and back into the race briefly. The Rays are probably now too far back with too little time remaining - 10 games behind the first-place Orioles in the American League East and 7 1/2 games out of the second wild card spot with 32 games remaining.

But this is not a club to look past any longer as it opens a four-game series in Baltimore.

Tampa Bay, which was 24-42 and 15 games out of first on June 10, climbed all the way back to .500 at 61-61 on Aug. 15. The Rays proceeded to lose four straight, but have since recovered with three wins in four contests to move back within two games of .500.

And how have the Rays accomplished so much since their horrific start? Pitching.

Since the start of June, Tampa Bay has the second-best ERA in the AL (2.88) and the best in baseball since the All-Star break (2.28).

Overall this season, the Rays have risen to third in the AL with a 3.43 team ERA and second with a 3.37 rotation ERA.

The Rays traded David Price to the Tigers and cut Erik Bedard since they last faced the Orioles at the end of June. But the acquisition of left-hander Drew Smyly and the return of right-hander Jeremy Hellickson have made it so the Tampa Bay rotation has remained formidable.

Every member of the current starting five has an ERA of 3.83 or better and they’re all pitching well. The Orioles miss right-hander Chris Archer (8-6, 3.09 ERA) this time, but with it being a four-game series, they get the rest of the group.

It starts off tonight with right-hander Jake Odorizzi facing Chris Tillman. Odorizzi has tossed three straight quality starts since allowing five runs in three innings against the Angels on Aug. 3.

The 24-year-old started the season rough, going 2-6 with a 5.31 ERA in his first 12 starts. But he has been a big part of the Rays’ turnaround, going 7-4 with a 2.75 ERA in his last 13 starts to bring his season totals to 9-10 with a 3.83 ERA.

After that, the task gets more daunting.

Right-hander Alex Cobb, who has essentially assumed the role of staff ace, pitches the second game against Wei-Yin Chen. Cobb hasn’t absorbed a loss since June 23 and has won his last seven decisions. During that time, the 26-year-old has pitched to a 1.99 ERA, striking out 63 in 63 1/3 innings.

Smyly then starts opposite rookie Kevin Gausman in the third game. Smyly has posted solid numbers over all this year (8-10, 3.43 ERA). But he has been exceptional since arriving in Tampa Bay as part of the haul for Price. The 25-year-old is 2-1 with a 1.55 ERA in four starts with the Rays.

Over his last three starts, he has held opponents to two runs in 23 2/3 innings for a 0.76 ERA. Smyly is coming off a two-hit shutout where he faced one batter over the minimum against the Blue Jays.

In Thursday’s finale, Hellickson faces Bud Norris, looking to also keep a strong string going. Hellickson has overcome injury and a stint in the minors to post a 2.61 ERA in seven starts with the Rays this season. He’s 1-1 with a 2.22 ERA over his last four starts and hasn’t surrendered more than four runs in any of his seven outings.

While the rotation has again been the Rays’ strength, the bullpen has been only solid this year, ranking ninth in the AL with a 3.55 ERA. Tampa Bay has blown 14 saves this season, which isn’t a terribly high number, but is made worse when considering that the club is tied for 24th in the majors with 44 save opportunities.

Left-hander Jake McGee has solidified the closer role after right-hander Grant Balfour didn’t pan out. McGee is having a great year, going 4-1 with 14 saves in 15 chances and a 1.33 ERA in a team-best 62 appearances. Right-hander Brad Boxberger has also been strong out of the ‘pen with a 2.09 ERA in 53 appearances.

But the Rays pitching staff has little margin for error with runs harder to come by than usual. Offense hasn’t been the team’s strong suit over the last four seasons, but this year has been especially rough with Tampa Bay ranked 12th in the AL with 513 runs and 97 homers, 10th with a .251 average and ninth with a .698 OPS.

Third baseman Evan Longoria leads the Rays with 16 homers and 72 RBIs, but is having a down season. His .715 OPS would mark his lowest in seven major league campaigns.

Outfielder Kevin Kiermaier leads the team with an .809 OPS in 81 games and has been on a small tear lately, going 6-for-9 with three doubles over his last three games. First baseman James Loney leads the Rays with a .286 average and ranks second with 60 RBIs. Second baseman Ben Zobrist has team-bests of 29 doubles and 68 runs scored.

So even though the Rays’ offense puts little fear in opponents, their pitching sure does and the Orioles’ struggling lineup won’t have it easy as it looks to get on track.

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