Rays optimistic after injury-riddled first half

Rays optimistic after injury-riddled first half

Rays optimistic after injury-riddled first half
ST. PETERSBURG -- On any given day during the first half, the Rays players on the disabled list looked more desirable to have in the lineup than the ones who were actually playing.

Rays manager Joe Maddon never complained, and somehow the team has managed to persevere and remain in contention. Now, the Rays look ahead to better days in the second half.

Club breakdowns
First-half highlights

"It's just been a back-and-forth kind of thing," Maddon said. "It's been unsettled, uncertain. The fact is that there are a lot of guys playing more often than you thought they were going to play. So those guys are being asked to do things on a nightly basis more consistently than they've been asked to do it here before. And there is a difference between doing that in the Majors and the Minor Leagues.

"It's been kind of an unsettled, uncertain situation based on injuries, guys filling in and playing a little bit more than they were penciled in to do at the beginning of the season. But in spite of all of that, we're right about where we were last year at the same time."

The Rays have had 14 players on the disabled list this season, which is the most they have had since 2008, when they had 18 for an entire season. Only once has the team seen more players go on the DL prior to the All-Star Game. That was in 1999, when the club had 15.

"We've dealt with a lot of adversity, but I think we've handled it pretty well," first baseman Carlos Pena said. "We definitely feel like we want to be in a better place. But I think we're in a good position anyway, to keep on pressing forward. We've got to look at it as a positive. We could have easily folded our tent. Instead, we're right there in the hunt."

No name on that list has been bigger than Evan Longoria's. The Rays third baseman went on the DL on May 1 with a partially torn left hamstring. He was hitting .329 with four home runs and nine RBIs and the Rays were 15-8, atop the American League East.

The Rays hit the All-Star break at 45-41, 7 1/2 games behind first-place New York.

"It's been every definition of grinding," B.J. Upton said. "And I think we've done a pretty good job of handling it. We're still in a good spot. There are a lot of games left to be played. Anything can happen. We'll start getting some guys back here pretty soon."

First-half awards
MVP: Fernando Rodney The veteran closer has been unflappable.
Cy Young: David Price The left-hander has returned to the 2010 form that earned him second place in the AL Cy Young Award voting.
Rookie: Matt Moore He has stepped up from Triple-A to the Major Leagues without missing a beat.
Top reliever: Fernando Rodney Rodney's excellence has allowed every reliever in the bullpen to move back an inning, which has worked well for the team.

Despite having a young roster, the Rays have experience at playing games that count, built by reaching the postseason in three of the last four seasons. Last year, the Rays went into September nine games out of a playoff berth, yet they managed to clinch the AL Wild Card spot on the final night of the regular season.

"We've done it before, and we know that," Upton said. "We know that we're still in this thing, very much. I don't think other teams are overlooking us. They know we're still a good ballclub. We just have to piece some things together and keep playing good baseball."

Led by David Price and Fernando Rodney, the Rays' pitching has been just short of heroic, particularly considering the fact the Rays have played subpar defense. On top of the defensive problems, the Rays have struggled on offense.

Players to watch in second half
Evan Longoria If he's back and healthy, he could carry the team.
Luke Scott Cold at the plate and often injured, he's due to heat up.
Matt Moore Moore has traditionally been a second-half pitcher, so if 2012 is anything like last season, he could provide a big boost.

Yet just when you're about to count out the Rays, they go like a Timex watch -- take a licking and keep on ticking.

Noteworthy was a recent visit by the Yankees to Tropicana Field. When the AL East leaders arrived, they held a 7 1/2-game lead on the Rays. Had New York swept the three-game series, the Rays' chances in the second half would have been dealt a severe blow. Instead, the Rays managed to take two out of three when they needed to most.

"It was huge," Pena said. "And we felt like we could have had that third win also, which gives us a lot of confidence that we've got what it takes. We've definitely got what it takes to go up against anyone, and just the thought of that sparks us."

Maddon remains loyal to his team and believes in the magic to come.

"I think the effort has been great," Maddon said. "The stuff inside the clubhouse -- the camaraderie -- has been great. It's just that we've been challenged in different ways this year and to still be [in contention] is not so bad."

James Shields said it was amazing for the team to be where it is, given the injuries it's encountered.

"Now, is that acceptable? No," Shields said. "We definitely have to play better baseball from here on out. There's no doubt about it. But we're pleased with what we're doing around here. We're all working real hard, so hopefully we have a better second half."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.