ST. PETERSBURG — Given that they went into the season “hell-bent’’ on returning to the realm of playoff contention this year, the Tampa Bay Rays should feel good at the All-Star break.
After taking three of four from the AL East-leading Boston Red Sox over the weekend, the Rays sit just 3.5 games out of first in the East and a game ahead of Minnesota in the race for the second AL wild card berth.
Just imagine where they’d be if they received a little more help from their bullpen.
The Rays win more with their bats now than they ever have, but they still need their bullpen to shut opponents down. Far too often this year that hasn’t happened.
Rays relievers went into the break with 16 wins and 20 losses, the third-most in the majors; 16 blown saves, also third-most in the majors; and a 4.38 ERA that ranked 20th.
That doesn’t even begin to tell this story of woe.
The Rays’ record when tied after six innings this year is 4-11. When they’re tied after seven innings it’s 2-5, and when they’re tied after eight it’s 1-4.
As those numbers suggest, the problem is not necessarily the back of the bullpen. Closer Alex Colome has struggled at times (he hasn’t had a hitless outing since May 31, a span of 13 appearances), but he leads the AL in saves with 25.
The problem is that despite hitting the fourth-most homers in the majors (133) and posting the majors’ eighth-best OPS (.774), the Rays haven’t been able to outhit the mistakes made by the rickety bridge of relievers that leads to Colome.
The Rays have outscored their opponents in each of the first five innings this year (284-209), but from that point on they have been outscored 54-33 in the sixth, 60-38 in the seventh, 56-36 in the eighth, and 26-23 in the ninth.
Still, the Rays went into the break with a 47-43 record. That’s their best record through 89 games since they went 49-40 under then-manager Joe Maddon in 2013, which just happens to be the last time the Rays made the playoffs.
One of the keys to the Rays’ success back then was a bullpen that included a dominant closer in Fernando Rodney, who racked up 37 saves, and a set-up crew that — despite pitching to a modest 3.59 ERA — allowed opposing hitters to hit only .218.
The current pen has so far allowed opponents to hit .242, but there’s reason to believe that will change as the Rays move forward, especially now that one of the most important members of their pen is back and pitching as expected.
One-time closer Brad Boxberger, the Rays’ projected eighth-inning set-up man who missed the first 81 games of the year while recovering from a lat strain, returned to action in Baltimore on June 30. In four appearances since, he has yet to allow a hit or a run.
Granted, it’s a small sample size, but a healthy and effective Boxberger can reduce some of the stress the Rays have had to place on Colome, whose five saves of four outs or more are the most in the AL, tied for second-most in the majors behind Dodger closer Kenley Jansen’s eight.
A healthy and effective Boxberger will also allow Tommy Hunter to move back into the seventh-inning role he’s best suited for, which should in turn allow the Rays to return their other relievers to the roles they’re best suited for.
It’s not all on Boxberger. The Rays’ bullpen would be aided greatly if the starters working ahead of them would pitch a little deeper into games than they have through much of this season. It seems, though, that the staff may be on the brink of doing that.
After getting an average of six innings or more out of just one of their five starters (Chris Archer) through the first month of the season, the Rays have lately been getting an average of six innings or more out of not just Archer, but Alex Cobb and rookie Jake Faria.
That has allowed manager Kevin Cash to set up his bullpen the way he originally hoped to. The results of that were evident during the Red Sox series. The Rays’ only loss came on a day when starter Jake Odorizzi gave up seven runs in 4.1 innings.
In the three victories Cash was able to use the trio of Hunter, Boxberger and Colome to finish off solid starts — at the front and back of the series — from Faria and Archer. Cash used Colome in a four-inning stint to finish off the middle victory by Cobb.
That trio combined for 6.2 innings of work in which it surrendered just three hits and no runs. That allowed the Rays to go into the break knowing they are indeed the playoff contenders baseball ops president Matt Silverman said they were “hell-bent’’ on becoming this year.
Given the way Cory Dickerson and Logan Morrison have been hitting — and the fact that Brad Miller and Wilson Ramos are now in the lineup to complement them — the Rays should have no trouble staying in contention all the way through the summer.
The Rays will only go as far as their bullpen allows. They appear once again to have the starting pitching to get to the playoffs, and they now have the bats to get there as well. Without a better second half from their bullpen, though, they won’t finish the journey.