We're almost to July and the Rays are at the top of the American League East, seemingly entrenched. They've either led the division or been within 2 1/2 games of the lead every day since May 13, an amazing trick for a team that traded ace David Price last July and saw both general manager Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon depart after last season.
Rookie manager Kevin Cash and the holdovers in his coaching staff (especially pitching coach Jim Hickey) deserve a ton of credit. Ditto franchise cornerstone Evan Longoria and the game's best defensive outfielder, Kevin Kiermaier. But more than anyone else, it's emerging ace Chris Archer who is keeping the Rays relevant these days.
Archer, who starts against the loaded Blue Jays' lineup tonight, has helped Tampa Bay win seven of his last eight starts, including four in a row. It is 10-5 in his starts overall after going 17-15 behind him last season, when he completed the graduate level course he received from Price.
"I guess he's putting himself in his own class now," Cash said earlier this month, after Archer became the first pitcher in the modern era to record nine-plus strikeouts without a walk in three consecutive starts. "Pretty impressive. Very impressive. He keeps giving us opportunities to win over and over again."
Archer could have moped after the Price trade or after Friedman and Maddon exited for bigger paychecks and the chance to compete with larger payrolls than the Rays can afford. Instead he has made himself a candidate to start the All-Star Game for the AL, not to mention to become the 11th different winner of the AL Cy Young in 11 seasons.
"The goal every time I step on the mound is to get a team win, and how do I do that?'' Archer asked recently. "I focus on 60 feet, 6 inches away, and that's it.''
Mix that focus with Archer's bat-defying pitches -- a fastball that continues to gain velocity (from 94.6 in 2012 to an average of 96.2 this season) and a wicked slider -- and you've got a guy who is 8-4 with a 2.18 ERA , 1.00 WHIP and 116 strikeouts in 95 innings.
Archer is second in the AL in ERA, third in strikeouts but first in the category we call PWMM -- Pitcher Who Matters Most.
The Rays would be crippled by having Matt Moore, Alex Cobb and Drew Smyly on the disabled list if not for the innings and leadership they've gotten from Archer. He's the pitcher who is making the biggest difference.
Here's the rest of the AL top five:
2. Dallas Keuchel, Astros: When I talked to Keuchel a year ago, he said it was no surprise that the Houston rotation was doing well, and that it has the same kind of talent as the top staffs in baseball. He's certainly doing his part to back up his confidence, as he's 8-3 with a 2.35 ERA in a league-leading 107 1/3 innings. The Astros still have some work to do -- they rank eighth in the AL with a 4.20 rotation ERA -- but Keuchel has put them in a position to compete for a postseason spot. Energy will not be a problem for the lefty or his teammates in the second half of the season.
3. Dellin Betances, Yankees: No Mariano Rivera, no David Robertson, no problem. With Betances and Andrew Miller at the back end, Joe Girardi still has one of the best bullpens in the business. They make a difference on a nightly basis for a Yankees team that closely monitors CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda. You want numbers? How's this? Betances has a 0.26 ERA in 35 innings, with 57 strikeouts and a .103 opponents' batting average. He's been tougher on left-handed hitters than right-handed hitters, making him a candidate for a two-inning save, when necessary.
4. Price, Tigers: There are better starting pitchers than Price at this point in time, with Sonny Gray and Chris Sale among them. But Price is doing exactly what Dave Dombrowski envisioned when he traded for him a year ago, solidifying the post-Max Scherzer rotation. He's a workhorse with a 2.50 ERA and lately has been unusually efficient with his pitches, throwing complete games with 110 and 93 pitches against the White Sox and Indians this month. The Tigers have floundered since an 11-2 start but would have long since slipped under .500 if not for Price.
5. Wade Davis, Royals: Yes, there probably ought to be a Twins pitcher on the list. Maybe Mike Pelfrey. Maybe Kyle Gibson. Maybe Glen Perkins, the AL saves leader. But the Royals are the AL's best team and the bullpen remains the best thing about them. Its 11-4 record and 2.12 bullpen ERA are both improvements from 2014, if you can get your mind around that. Davis is 3-1 with eight saves and a 0.30 ERA. He's allowed only three extra-base hits this season and zero home runs since Ned Yost moved him to the bullpen in 2013, and he gets extra credit for holding the bullpen together when Greg Holland was on the DL and when Kelvin Herrera was suspended.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.