Making the Rays even more sympathetic figures is the fact that their annual uphill fight is against two Goliaths -- one from New York, one from Boston.
Against the wealthiest franchises the game can produce, the Rays compete with the time-tested baseball virtues: perceptive scouting, diligent player development, astute personnel decisions, and a coherent, working philosophy that pervades the entire organization. The record is going to show that two out of the past three years, against the consummate baseball big guys, the Rays won the American League East Division title, not to mention the AL pennant in 2008.
But now comes a season in which conventional wisdom had the Rays, forced by financial constraints to trim payroll, disappearing from the ranks of the elite. This has not happened. At the close of business Monday night, after an 8-4 Interleague victory over the Milwaukee Brewers, the Rays were 4 1/2 games behind Boston and three games behind New York.
It is true that at times this season, the Rays have struggled mightily to score. They came into this week ranked just ninth in the league in runs scored. But with several players hitting well under their career norms, improvement is not improbable. And they maintain the virtues of pitching and defense. They were fifth in the AL in team ERA. They were in terrific shape in the first three rotation spots with David Price, rookie Jeremy Hellickson, and James Shields, who just won AL Pitcher of the Week for the second time this season. The remade bullpen has been a surprisingly stable group. Thus, the Rays can reasonably figure on their pitching keeping them in the hunt and their offense improving.
The proof of this club's competitive status for Rays manager Joe Maddon was a recent three-game series against Boston. The Rays lost two of three, but all the games were close and competitive.
"We just played the Red Sox at full strength and we lost, 7-6, over the three games," Maddon said. "So that gives us a good idea of where we're at. I think it's a great test to see where you are.
"It's a toe-to-toe situation. We know we can play with them. We know we can beat them. We know we can beat the Yankees. We can beat all these guys, and we haven't even played our best baseball yet.
"Longo [Evan Longoria] is going to come out of this [slump] and really take off, I believe," Maddon said. "B.J.[Upton] has had a lot of bad luck, he has hit some balls really well without any luck. Johnny Damon has maintained pretty well. Ben Zobrist is going to look like the Ben of two years ago. Matt Joyce hit a little bit of a skid, but nevertheless he's got some more in there also. Reid Brignac is starting to pick his game up a little bit. There's a lot of things I think are going to get better as the season progresses.
"I anticipate the rotation is going to stay good. The bullpen, too, as long as we don't overuse them. The bullpen has been the biggest surprise in a positive way."
For the manager, the improvement of two components in his club would take it from close to first.
"We've got to be more consistent scoring runs, especially at home," Maddon said. "We're really bad at home, scoring runs. That would be the primary thing.
"And then the backside of the rotation, with Jeff [Niemann] coming back right now and Wade Davis, if we really get those guys pitching like they can. Those would be the two things that could get us over the top."
In that latter regard, Monday night's game was tremendously encouraging. Niemann, who had been on the disabled list for 45 days with a lower back strain, returned with a stellar performance. He threw six shutout innings against a heavy-hitting Milwaukee team in what was a one-run game until the seventh inning.
Niemann was remarkably pitch-efficient through the first five innings, throwing just 49 pitches to that point. He then came away unscathed from a bases-loaded, one-out situation in the sixth. And his back was pain-free.
Niemann, at 6-foot-9 inches tall, is not exactly out of central casting as David, but he was suitably humble about his return, saying: "The big thing is being able to be back in this clubhouse and being a contributing member of this team again."
Well said. The Rays have not gone away, faded away, evaporated or otherwise vanished. Their offense has been absent too often at Tropicana Field, but there is solace even in that. They have suffered that absence, and yet they remain just off the pace in the difficult neighborhood of the AL East. They are doing this without hundreds of millions to spend on player payroll. They remain, in more ways than one, good for the game.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less