MLB.com Columnist

Hal Bodley

Series vs. Giants a measuring stick for Rays

Series vs. Giants a measuring stick for Rays

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Tampa Bay Rays have been written off more times this season than the double-martini lunch.

It began even before the first pitch was thrown in Spring Training, when many soothsayers picked them to finish last in the AL East.

And when the Rays recently lost 11 of 13 games, hitting the basement floor hard, there were those who said, "I told you so."

But when they picked themselves up, rebuilt their season winning nine of 11 games after losing eight in a row, there were second thoughts.

Dickerson's mammoth home run

On Thursday afternoon, they had a chance to reach .500 for the first time since May 21 by sweeping the Seattle Mariners and taking that momentum to the weekend series against the San Francisco Giants, who are on a five-game winning streak and have a commanding lead in the NL West.

Instead, against the Mariners, the Rays played like a last-place team, which they are.

Rookie phenom Blake Snell pitched a nightmarish 3 1/3 innings. The Rays were 3-for-15 with runners in scoring position, and made three errors which opened the flood gates for four unearned runs.

And they lost, 6-4.

Cishek's 15th save of season

As depressing as that was for Rays fans, the fact is Tampa Bay could easily have won the game.

That's why maybe this team shouldn't be written off just yet.

Oh, it's not likely to win the division, and to say securing a Wild Card berth over the Baltimores, Bostons or Torontos is a stretch.

But to have watched these Rays win nine of those 11 games before Thursday is encouraging, especially when four of their big guns -- Kevin Kiermaier, Steven Souza Jr., Brandon Guyer and Evan Longoria -- are either on the disabled list, or battling nagging injuries.

Kiermaier uses right hand

My guess is the true 2016 Rays team isn't as bad as it showed during the 11-of-13 skid, or as good as it was on the recent hot streak. It's somewhere in between, and that should make it interesting the remainder of the season.

Will the real Tampa Bay Rays please stand up?

How well they do against the Giants should be an accurate indicator.

There's enormous incentive.

Never before have these Rays played before 40,000 fans at Tropicana Field. That will happen Friday night when the ballpark will be sold out as they dedicate their annual Pride Night to victims of the mass shootings in Orlando.

The Rays are donating 100 percent of the proceeds from the $5 tickets sold since Tuesday to help the victims' families.

"It'll be nice to give people something to smile about in such harsh times," said pitcher Chris Archer, who will start Friday night's game. "What the Rays organization is doing is very special. I don't know many other organizations, not just in sports but in general, doing something this significant."

The normal capacity for Tropicana Field is 31,042, but for this special occasion, tarps have been removed from the upper deck, thus increasing seating.

Aside from the large crowd and the first-place Giants, there may be a "what if?" murmur throughout the stands.

When the Rays had the overall first pick in the 2008 MLB Draft, they chose infielder Tim Beckham. The Giants took catcher Buster Posey, who went on to win the NL Rookie of the Year, 2012 NL MVP Award and be a three-time All-Star.

The way the Rays have been playing, even their losses could be a fitting analogy to their season. They often fall behind early, seem destined for defeat, but refuse to go quietly.

On Thursday, the Mariners led by 3-0 after an inning, and 5-2 before the Rays batted in the fourth.

Yet trailing 5-4 with two outs and the bases loaded in the eighth, the Rays could have won -- or at least taken the lead -- with a hit. Steve Pearce, who had three prior hits and is batting .514 in his last 10 games, fanned.

Benoit gets out of a jam

"We've found some ways to win difficult ballgames," said manager Kevin Cash. "Prior to Thursday's loss we played clean baseball. We came from behind and there were a lot of good things. Our pitching is coming around. A lot of things are looking bright."

For years the Rays have been built around outstanding starting pitching. That's been their legacy.

That starters for the most part have been unable to go deep into games has been a glaring weakness. The rotation through Thursday is 18-23, with a 4.26 ERA.

Defense has also defined the Rays, but it has been below-par much of the season. The four unearned runs the Mariners scored Thursday were the most in two years.

Cruz comes home an error

Maybe even more alarming has been their inability to deliver key hits in close games. That was an Achilles heel in 2015, and is still a problem, even though during the offseason improving the offense was a No. 1 objective.

Too often, the Rays have been unable to get runners home from third base. In the final two games against the Mariners, they left 29 runners on base and hit just .138 (4-for-29) with runners in scoring position.

Diaz's big strikeout

"Guys are on the mend," said Cash. "There are some guys who are ramping up their rehab and getting closer, but it's always a challenge when you're missing the key pieces you thought you are going to have breaking out of camp. It's a challenge for every team in baseball to work through those situations.

"The guys we have here need to help us find ways to win games. For the most part a lot of them are doing that and contributing."

Cash, however, refuses to dwell on the negatives.

"Look, we have played really good baseball and we're winning series," he said. "That's the important thing."

The Giants series is huge. Then it's off to Cleveland and Baltimore before the Red Sox invade the Trop on June 27.

By then, we should have a better picture who these Rays truly are.

Hal Bodley, dean of American baseball writers, is the senior correspondent for MLB.com. Follow him @halbodley on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.