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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Rays no strangers to dramatic turnarounds

Confidence growing that Tampa Bay still can live up to lofty preseason expectations

Rays no strangers to dramatic turnarounds

Funny thing is, some of us thought this was the season the Tampa Bay Rays wouldn't need any late-season magic to make the postseason. On Opening Day, they had the look and feel of baseball's best team. The Rays wouldn't have disagreed with that assessment. At the very least, they believed they deserved to be in the conversation.

That's because Andrew Friedman, the team's executive vice president of baseball operations, had done his usual smart work assembling the roster, and he had baseball's best manager, Joe Maddon, to make it all work. Two superstars in David Price and Evan Longoria. Deep bullpen. Great rotation and defense.

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And then it came undone. Injuries decimated the rotation. Nothing clicked offensively. Also at times -- and let's be fair about this -- they played lousy baseball. This was the part of the deal we weren't accustomed to seeing from one of baseball's most successful franchises, one attempting to make the postseason for the fifth time in seven years.

Maddon felt the same way. He acknowledged all the bad stuff, but in his heart of hearts, almost certainly felt that Tampa Bay had worked too hard to build a winning culture to accept what was happening.

Maddon told anyone who would listen that the Rays would eventually get back on track. He told his players the same thing. In fact, he told them exactly that one day in June. Maddon said he liked how they were playing, and that if they continued to do the right thing -- that is, if they continued to play hard and play smart -- there'd be a turnaround.

Maybe the Rays will look back and circle June 10 on their calendar. Adam Wainwright beat Jake Odorizzi, 1-0, that night at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay had the worst record in baseball at 24-42 after that game. The club was 15 games out in the American League East and 11 out in the AL Wild Card race.

When the Rays look back on it, they may not understand exactly how things turned around. Alex Cobb returned from the disabled list around that time. So did Ben Zobrist. Price got hot. Suddenly, offensive contributions began to come from up and down the lineup, especially center fielder Desmond Jennings and rookie outfielder Kevin Kiermaier.

And Tampa Bay began to win. And win. With Odorizzi's 7-2 victory over Wainwright on Tuesday, the Rays have won 17 of 22 and are 24-11 since that first defeat. In that time, they're the AL's third-highest scoring team.

Zobrist is hot. Kiermaier is hot. And a team built on pitching is getting solid pitching from Price, Cobb, Odorizzi and Chris Archer. Beyond the numbers, there's a confidence growing that this is who they're supposed to be.

That's why it's unlikely that Tampa Bay will trade Price, Zobrist or anyone else. Those Spring Training expectations of greatness are still possible. Rather than selling pieces and retooling for 2015, Friedman will be shopping for bullpen help as the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline approaches.

Some will look at the math and tell them to forget it. Despite all the winning, they're still five games under .500 at 48-53. They're 7 1/2 games behind the Orioles in the AL East and six out in the AL Wild Card race. They've got five teams in front of them in the Wild Card race. They'd have to go 42-19 to get to 90 victories.

Only three teams in history have reached .500 after falling 18 games below .500. That would be the 1899 Louisville Colonels (22 under), 2004 Devil Rays (18 under) and 2006 Marlins (20 under).

However, not a single one of those teams finished the season at .500, so there's that. In other words, the Rays have very little room for error. A bad week could bury them again in the standings.

Working in their favor is that they've been down this road before. In 2010, they clinched the AL East on the final day of the season. In 2011, they came from 9 1/2 back in the final five weeks to get a Wild Card berth. And last season, they were forced to fly to Arlington for a tiebreaker game against the Rangers to make the postseason.

So if there's a team accustomed to this kind of stuff, this is it. The Rays have got that great rotation. They've got an offense throwing big numbers on the scoreboard. Their bullpen still causes Maddon some stress, but in the AL East landscape, there's not a better team than Tampa Bay at the moment.

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

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