As Lucille Bluth would say, you can always tell a Milford man. A Milford man is neither seen nor heard. In fact, most of the time, you can hardly tell they’re there.
Which brings us to baseball’s forgotten team, the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays are Milford men through and through, a group of anonymous overachievers confined to the league’s eeriest stadium, the cavernous Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. Sometimes you wonder what it will take for the Rays to finally get their due. They literally reinvented baseball last year by introducing the opener, now a mainstream movement adopted by almost every team. Not even a thank you. If the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers are the life of the party, keg-standing and belting out karaoke, the low-budget Rays are the timid wallflowers that can’t strike up a conversation, checking their watches and sipping quietly from red Solo cups.
The embattled younger sibling of the AL East can’t seem to convince anyone of its greatness. Baseball pundits on television love to spoon-feed us narratives, but never about the Rays. How are the Yankees doing this without their best players? Can anyone challenge the Dodgers in the National League? When will the Mets finally fire Mickey Callaway? Is Bryce Harper a fraud? Will Craig Kimbrel ever get a job? Even the Twins, a similarly underappreciated club with financial restraints, are getting more acknowledgment than Tampa.
That might never change. Perhaps the Rays are doomed to always play second banana to sexier, big-market clubs while ceding primetime slots to perennial powerhouses like Boston and New York. But even if the Rays lack brand recognition and play half their games in a decrepit baseball dungeon, they still have one thing going for them—they’re really, really good. In fact, if the Rays stick to their current pace, they’ll win 105 games, shattering the franchise high-water mark of 97 set in 2008, the year they won their first (and so far, only) AL pennant.
Hosting the Twins, owners of the majors’ best record at 37-18 (mere percentage points ahead of the Dodgers), the Rays had a chance to make a statement Thursday night. And that’s just what they did, throttling Minnesota for their sixth straight win in a 14-3 rout. The weekend is young—Thursday was just the first of a four-game set in St. Pete. But the Twins, winners of 12 of their last 14 games prior to Thursday, will certainly be feeling the effects of this one.
The Rays put the hurt on early, breaking through for 11 runs in the first four innings including a six-run third that chased Twins starter Martin Perez from the game. Perez, a 28-year-old Venezuela native, never moved the needle much in Texas but he’s made himself right at home in Minnesota, logging seven wins in 12 outings (nine starts) for the up-start Twins. The change of scenery from Globe Life Park, a hitter’s park if there ever was one, to the more forgiving confines of Target Field, has certainly played a role in the lefty’s star turn this year. But plans to erect a statue in his honor were scrapped after Thursday’s letdown, which raised Perez’s ERA from 2.95 all the way to 3.71.
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As for the Rays, they won it the way they always do—weirdly and beautifully. The A’s, well-known for their “Moneyball” tactics, are the preeminent dumpster-divers of MLB, but Tampa Bay might be a close second in that department. From Logan Morrison to C.J. Cron (now a Twin, ironically enough), the crafty Rays are never one to shy away from a reclamation project. Tampa may have uncovered another gem in Avisail Garcia, a one-time All-Star with the White Sox who signed for pennies on the dollar after squandering his contract year with a dismal 2018 (.236 AVG in 356 at-bats). Looking to reinvent himself in Tampa, the 27-year-old has done exactly that, cruising to a .301 average with 10 homers and 25 RBI. He’s also unlocked a hidden talent, using his newfound wheels to log six steals (one off his career-high of seven set in 2015) on eight attempts. Garcia, who graduated with a major in Twins studies from his many years playing in the AL Central, took Minnesota to school with three hits, a walk and three runs scored in Thursday night’s onslaught.
Garcia was a clutch find, but the Rays are also well-stocked for the future with talented up-and-comers like Austin Meadows (one of two pieces acquired in last year’s Chris Archer heist) and early Rookie of the Year front-runner Brandon Lowe. Both blew the doors off on Thursday night with Meadows providing two of the Rays’ 16 hits along with four RBI while Lowe plated three runs of his own in the winning effort. Meadows has been an absolute cheat code for the Rays, rolling to a .361 mark with 12 jacks, 36 RBI and six steals. Those gaudy counting stats are even more impressive when you factor in the time he lost to a strained thumb, an injury that kept the 24-year-old off the field for nearly three weeks. Lowe, a jack-of-all-trades who has seen reps at three different positions this year (first base, second and right field), has swung a similarly hot stick for the second-place Rays, ranking second among rookies in both round-trippers (11) and RBI (35). Mets standout Pete Alonso has him beat in both categories but that’s not a knock on Lowe, a player the Rays believe in so strongly that they signed him to a six-year, $24 million extension this offseason. Lowe may regret that deal later if he really blows up, but there’s still a lot you can do with $24 million especially in Florida, a state famed for its lack of income tax.
The Rays certainly brought the thunder offensively Thursday night, but even if they hadn’t, Charlie Morton would have had their back anyway. One of the few traditional starters still employed by the forward-thinking Rays, the former Astro kept the Twins at bay, limiting the visitors to two runs on four hits over seven strong innings. Thursday spelled the latest chapter in a season of stinginess for Morton, who has sizzled to an unblemished 6-0 record with 83 punch-outs (11.09 K/9) and a 2.54 ERA through 12 turns in the Rays’ rotation. The 35-year-old havoc-wreaker has found the fountain of youth and he’s not sharing, winning 21-of-24 decisions since the start of last season.
The Rays spoiled Rocco Baldelli’s homecoming and few were there to see it as Thursday’s series opener drew a paltry 8,076 fans to the Trop, only a slight improvement on the 5,786 that showed up Tuesday night, the smallest crowd in the team’s 21-year history. And here lies the greatest obstacle the Rays face in their ongoing quest for relevance. If their own community doesn’t care, why should anyone else? Because they’re good as hell, that’s why! Shame on you, Tampa. If only the Rays had a little less Buster and a little more David Puddy, then we’d be onto something.
AL Quick Hits: Dallas Keuchel’s agent, Scott Boras, believes his client will be ready to pitch in the majors within a week of signing. The former Cy Young winner has been greeted by crickets on the free agent market, though interest should pick up after the draft, which begins Monday. … Tommy Pham exited Thursday night’s game with cramping in his lower leg. The Rays outfielder received “good” news from his MRI and expects to suit up Friday against Minnesota. … Yankees skipper Aaron Boone suggested Didi Gregorius, who is currently rehabbing in the minors with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, could return for the start of the team’s six-game road trip, which kicks off Tuesday in Toronto. Didi was expected to miss most if not all of the first half following offseason Tommy John surgery but obviously his timeline has moved up considerably. … CC Sabathia threw a bullpen session Thursday in advance of his expected return Sunday against Boston. It looks like the veteran lefty will end up missing just one start after landing on the injured list with knee inflammation last week. … Hunter Dozier bowed out of Thursday night’s game with right-sided thorax tightness. He’s been cooking lately (10 for his last 22), so hopefully fantasy owners won’t be without him for too long. … Mike Trout returned Thursday after missing the previous day’s game with a sore foot. The two-time AL MVP didn’t miss a beat, reaching four times while contributing three RBI in a win over the Mariners. … Joey Gallo was back in action Thursday after a wrist injury kept him out Wednesday. He went 0-for-3 with a walk as the Rangers fell 4-2 to Kansas City.
NL Quick Hits: Hyun-Jin Ryu capped a pitch-perfect May with another masterful outing Thursday against the Mets, limiting the visitors to four hits over seven shutout frames in a 2-0 Dodgers victory. The left-hander from Korea rolled to a 5-0 mark in May while allowing a mere three runs in 45 innings of work (0.60 ERA). … Justin Turner got the night off Thursday, missing L.A.’s series finale against the Mets due to a tight hamstring. Manager Dave Roberts said Turner would be available to pinch-hit, though that never came to fruition. … Some good news on the injury front for Milwaukee as Travis Shaw is expected to join the Brewers after finishing his rehab assignment with Triple-A San Antonio this weekend. It’s taken the third baseman a little over two weeks to recover from a strained wrist … Coors Field was up to its usual tricks Thursday as the Rockies and D’Backs combined for 21 runs in an afternoon slugfest. Colorado edged Arizona 11-10 on Daniel Murphy’s walk-off single in the 10th inning, completing the Rockies’ four-game sweep. Kyle Freeland endured another nightmare start for Colorado (3 IP, 7 H, 5 ER), raising his season ERA to a hellish 7.13. … Speaking of Colorado, former Rockie Carlos Gonzalez is headed to the Cubs on a minor-league deal. CarGo disappointed in a stint with Cleveland earlier this year, managing only a .210 average in 105 at-bats before being let go. … Bryce Harper’s debut season in Philadelphia has been anything but smooth sailing but it seems the former MVP has finally found his stroke. He delivered the goods with a strong, three-hit showing Thursday in a loss to St. Louis. The 26-year-old has raked over his last eight games, batting a ridiculous .406 (13-for-32) with a homer and 10 RBI during that span. … Neil Walker couldn’t finish Thursday’s game against San Francisco, exiting with a strained right quad. JT Riddle was scratched from his game at Triple-A New Orleans, indicating he could be on his way to the majors to replace Walker.