Richard Justice

'Rays baseball' means finding ways to win

Justice: 'Rays baseball' means finding ways to win

'Rays baseball' means finding ways to win
The Tampa Bay Rays have been doing this stuff for so long that it's not even a surprise anymore.

Injuries? Sure, they've had a few.

Offense? Yeah, it's a challenge.

Defense? Hey, no one's perfect.

Still, we've come to assume the Rays will figure something out. They'll do it without spending much money because they don't have much to spend. In the end, though, they'll be in the mix.

They're 5-0 since getting Evan Longoria back in the lineup, and after a numbing run of injuries, are nevertheless tied with the A's for the top spot in the American League Wild Card standings.

On the first day of Spring Training, Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman thanked his players for making the playoffs again in 2011. He told them he felt the franchise had crossed some kind of threshold last season in overcoming an assortment of hurdles to make the postseason for the third time in four years.

To Friedman, that team proved once and for all he'd succeeded in changing the culture around the Rays. They now expect to win.

Perhaps it's the highest possible compliment that it's no surprise to see them back in contention during a season in which manager Joe Maddon has been forced to mix and match his lineups from the start.

The truth is that Maddon is a lot like Friedman in that he absolutely loves the challenge of winning this way.

Losing his best player for three months -- and a bunch of others -- is no excuse. Right, Joe?

Maddon has started eight different players at third base and eight at second. He has used eight different leadoff hitters and 10 cleanup hitters.

The Rays had 10 players on the disabled list at one point. They lost their closer, Kyle Farnsworth, before the season began. Fernando Rodney has stepped in and gone 35 for 36 in save chances.

During one stretch, the Rays lost five players in 12 days and were claiming players off waivers and putting them right into the starting lineup.

Longoria tore a hamstring on the last day of April and didn't return until last week.

They're 20-8 with him in the lineup, 41-44 without him. The Rays' offense is a little more than a run per game better with him. Yet they hung in contention, barely, while he was out.

Maybe that's what it means to change the culture. They're so good now that we pretty much take them for granted.

We've come to assume that Friedman and Maddon will figure something out no matter what.

They're proud of this fact. They talk about "the way we do things around here." Maddon preaches "Rays baseball."

For all the complex data the organization uses to make decisions, the Rays rely on a really simple premise: pitching and defense win games.

Even their defense went south for a time this season. They haven't made an error in 10 straight games and have made just seven in 27 contests since the All-Star Break. Before that, they had 71 in 86 games -- the second-most in MLB.

And there's that pitching staff.

To focus on what the Rays don't have is sometimes to overlook what they do. They have arms stacked upon arms.

They have guys who throw hard and make opposing hitters uncomfortable. They're competitive, too, keeping their team in games no matter what's happening with the offense.

They have the AL's best ERA at 3.39. They also lead the AL in strikeouts. The Rays have allowed one or zero earned runs in 10 of their past 17 games, and three or fewer in 20 of their past 27.

Left-hander David Price is in the middle of the AL Cy Young Award race. He's tied for the AL lead in victories, third in ERA, fourth in innings and tied for fifth in strikeouts. James Shields, Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson are also dotted among the AL leader boards.

Once Luke Scott returns from the disabled list, the Rays will be as close to whole as they're going to be this season. With all that pitching and all that defense, it may be enough to get them to the postseason for the fourth time in five years. Don't bet against them.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.