We need a new adjective to describe the Tampa Bay Rays. "Red-hot" simply doesn't do it. "White-hot" isn't close any more. "A New York City subway platform in late July" ... well, that might be too hot.
Regardless of what you want to call the Rays, there's no doubting just how good they are right now. With a 3-0 win over Boston on Monday night, Tampa is now 18-2 in its last 20 games, the kind of preposterous record that makes you think Joe Maddon is making human sacrifices in the clubhouse to some kind of bizarre half-man, half-ray god. (Possible name: Mantor?) Consider the following stats:
- On Jun. 28, Tampa lost to Detroit, 6-3, to fall seven games behind the Red Sox in the AL East. Three weeks later, Tampa is now only half-a-game back.
- In that 18-2 stretch, the Rays have shut out their opponents five times and allowed a single run three times. Only twice has an opposing team scored even as many as five runs—and Tampa won both those games.
- Monday's victory makes this the second six-game-or-longer win streak for Tampa in those 20 games. Unsurprisingly, given that they've lost only twice in the last month, the Rays haven't dropped consecutive games since Jun. 26 and 28 against Detroit.
- Matt Moore, on the hill for the series opener at Fenway Park, has now made four starts since the Rays went supernova: 4-0 in 29 2/3 innings with three earned runs. That's a nice tidy ERA of 0.92. Oh, and he's struck out 29 versus just six walks. Versus Boston, Moore was almost unhittable, allowing just a pair of singles and a walk as he breezed through the Red Sox in a 109-pitch, complete-game effort—his first ever complete-game shutout.
So what's changed for the Rays from that late June nadir? For starters, the rotation is much improved (no pun intended). Moore has been spectacular, and since coming off the disabled list, David Price has resumed his No. 1 starter status, with a 1.97 ERA and a ridiculous 23-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 32 innings. Jeremy Hellickson has dropped his ERA a full half-point, with seven earned runs and 26 strikeouts in his last 24 innings. Even back-end starters Chris Archer and Roberto Hernandez have gone from five-inning punching bags to valuable contributors. Since a mixed five-inning, three-run start on Jun. 30, Archer has stepped up admirably, with a 0.96 ERA in 28 innings. His 16-to-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in that timeframe suggests Archer's been a bit lucky, but the results have been stellar anyway. And Hernandez, whose rotation spot was in jeopardy in June, has allowed three or fewer earned runs in his last four starts, which is just about all you can ask for from a fifth starter.
Offensively, a team that was once dead in the water is showing signs of life. In that 18-2 stretch, the Rays are averaging almost five runs per game, vaulting them into the top half of the AL. What's especially interesting about that is that the Rays' normal producers have been slumping badly throughout that streak. From Jun. 28 through Sunday's games, Ben Zobrist hit .239/.309/.394 with just two homers in 71 at-bats. Evan Longoria's been even worse, with a .169/.310/.339 line, three homers and eight RBI in 59 at-bats.
Who's saving the Rays? The likes of James Loney (.339/.375/.424 in 59 AB), Kelly Johnson (.327/.377/.612 with four homers in 49 at-bats), and Desmond Jennings (.309/.385/.494 with a 14-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio and six stolen bases). But you can point to two players in particular for pushing Tampa to the top: Civil War-era facial-hair enthusiast Luke Scott, and the rookie who was supposed to replace him, Wil Myers.
Unsurprisingly for a player deemed the No. 4 prospect in the game by Baseball America prior to the start of the season, Myers has made a quick adjustment to MLB pitching. He started his career 4-for-21 without a walk, but a 3-for-4 game against the Yankees on Jun. 22, including his first career homer, seemed to turn things around. Since then, Myers is hitting .337/.366/.511 with four homers and 16 RBI in 101 plate appearances. Myers' plate discipline needs some work—he's got a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 27-to-6 in that stretch—but he's been a big upgrade for Tampa in right field, replacing Matt Joyce (.243/.323/.443 on the season, .191/.283/.213 since Jun. 28) and Sam Fuld (.198/.264/.284, relegated to fifth outfielder status after Myers' call-up).
As for Scott, many imagined that Myers' arrival was a sign that the Rays' designated hitter wasn't long for the roster. At the time of Myers' call-up on Jun. 18, Scott was hitting a putrid .240/.340/.388. But since then, it's been a whole new season for Scott, who's become the Rays' biggest power threat. Going into Monday's game, Scott had hit a scorching .342/.415/.671 with five homers and 14 RBI in 82 plate appearances. What's changed for Scott? He's hitting more line drives, striking out less, and showing surprising plate discipline for a guy who's deservedly had a hacker reputation for years. It's a perfect storm for the Rays, who now have a chance Tuesday to grab an outright lead in the AL East for the first time all season if they can beat Jon Lester. Even if they can't, it's a safe bet to expect that Boston and Tampa will stay in a tight division race for the rest of the summer.