Rays have yet to hit their stride

Rays have yet to hit their stride

ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays have heard the comments countless times this season: They just don't have the 2008 magic.

2009 Midterm Report

While Tampa Bay has not put together the walk-off and come-from-behind wins that it did last season thus far in 2009, it does appear to be a better team -- albeit a team that just hasn't quite clicked yet.

Many times that magic or clicking never comes to fruition during any given season. But the Rays appear to be headed in the right direction based on several factors. Despite the fact that they lack a closer, the relief corps has been lights-out, and it has seemingly found the right rhythm to navigate a second-half run.

The offense is much improved. Having B.J. Upton and Carl Crawford at the top of the order creates problems for any team the Rays face, and they have the firepower to drive in the pair, with Evan Longoria, Carlos Pena, Ben Zobrist and Pat Burrell following them.

Finally, the starting pitching hasn't really hit its stride yet, but everyone is healthy heading into the second half.

The Rays would like to find more consistency after the break, and they need to become a better road team if they are to overcome the likes of the Red Sox and Yankees in the American League East. Tampa Bay has a team capable of doing great things, but sooner or later, it is going to need to show more of a sense of urgency.

Club MVP: Crawford is the MVP for his sustained excellence in the first half. He's completely healthy for the first time in several years, and it's shown on the field. He is the trigger for a potent offense, and he's done everything he's supposed to do in that role, including leading the Major Leagues in stolen bases.

Call him "Ace": James Shields' record doesn't do justice to what he's done this season. The Rays' No. 1 starter has kept his team in the game virtually every time he has taken the mound this season, and he usually takes the team through at least six innings. Unfortunately for Shields, on most nights when he pitches, the opponent's ace is pitching, which explains the lack of run support Shields has received this season, but he still has 11 quality starts.

Greatest strength: The offense. This year's team can hang a crooked number at the drop of a hat. The Rays have a lot of speed, power and growing discipline at the plate. If an opposing pitcher suffers any lack of concentration, watch out. An added boost to the offense has come in the form of Zobrist's remarkable power surge and Jason Bartlett's season-long hot hitting.

Biggest problem: Even though the Rays have a remarkable group of young starters, their inconsistency has been the hardest thing to overcome. Scott Kazmir has struggled all season, and Matt Garza, who has the best stuff on the staff, can wander. Rookie David Price has not made pitching at the Major League level look quite as easy as he did in October, but Jeff Niemann has been a nice surprise, with several jewels. Only Shields can be counted on to give a solid performance every time out.

Biggest surprise: Zobrist. Two years ago, Zobrist was a Punch and Judy contact hitter when he lost his starting shortstop job. Now he is a hard-swinging power threat who can play many positions, but he settled in as the team's everyday second baseman after Akinori Iwamura went on the disabled list.

Team needs: If a closer becomes available, Tampa Bay might bite. But as it stands, the Rays' bullpen has been one of the team's strengths. Manager Joe Maddon has managed to find matchups so his relievers can succeed, and given the way the bullpen has performed, there is hardly a panic to find a closer.

He said it: "We're just playing better, getting all the components of the games working once again, which is great to see. And then again, it starts with the pitching -- that really makes all the difference in the world. So we're pitching better, [and] because of that, we're playing better." -- Maddon

Mark your calendar: The Rays host the Yankees (July 27-29) and the Red Sox (Aug. 4-5) early in the second half, which could set the tone for the remainder of the season. In September, Tampa Bay will face its stiffest test, when the club goes on a 11-game road trip -- in New York for four (Sept. 7-9, including a doubleheader on Sept. 7), Boston (Sept. 11-13) for three and Baltimore (Sept. 14-17) for four.

Fearless second-half prediction: Burrell, who struggled in the first half, and Longoria, who began the season hot, will help supercharge the offense, while Price and Garza will find their grooves to lead a second-half run that will see the Rays fall just short of winning the division. But they will help the club earn the AL Wild Card spot.

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