Series Preview: Cleveland Indians vs. Tampa Bay Rays

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After suffering through a tough stretch of baseball against the Red Sox and Reds, the Indians finally look like they might be getting back on the winning track. After last night’s 7-1 victory over the Reds, the Tribe has won two in a row and pulled themselves back to within a half game of the first place Detroit Tigers in the AL Central. They’ll look to keep things going tonight as they welcome the ever dangerous Tampa Bay Rays to town for a three game series.

The Rays come into tonight’s game as one of the hottest teams in all of baseball. They have won five games in a row and find themselves  three back of the Red Sox in the AL East. It’s a bit surprising that they are in such a good situation. This is a team that was struggling mightily offensively to begin the year and has yet to see their ace pitch like an ace. Naturally, the Rays have found a way to do what they always do and just keep on winning games. It’s a true testament to their front office and manager Joe Maddon.

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The Rays offense has been impressive following their early season struggles. Much like the Indians, they struggled to find their way for much of April. Still, coming into tonight’s game they are ranked in the top ten of most of the key offensive categories, including batting average, runs scored, on base percentage and slugging. Another positive is that the Rays have yet to experience their yearly no-hitter. Maybe this is the year where they finally find a way to not get no-hit at least one time.

Leading the charge offensively for the Rays is super-star Evan Longoria. He’s a beast at the plate, posting a triple slash line of .313/.373/.537 and 150 ops+. He’s truly been everything the Rays thought he would be oh so many years ago and now that he’s finally 100% healthy it’s apparent that he is one of the best players in all of baseball. His rWAR 2.2 is already within decimal points of his 2012 output. By season’s end his numbers should be in line with what he has done historically, which is surprising considering he lacks any real protection in the Rays lineup.

Other offensive threats for the Rays include the super versatile Ben Zobrist, uber athlete Desmond Jennings, and an assortment of spare parts that includes Kelly Johnson, Yunel Escobar, James Loney, and Sean Rodriguez among others. Like I said, it’s a wonder that Longoria has been able to accomplish the things he has accomplished given the players surrounding him in the lineup. The real question, however, is how long can the Rays role players continue to perform at above average levels? Can James Loney keep hitting over .300? Will Johnson’s power persist? We’ll have to wait and see.

But, as I mentioned earlier, the most surprising aspect of the Rays 2013 season has been the dismal performance of their ace and 2012 AL Cy Young winner David Price. He just hasn’t been himself all season long and now he is dealing with a triceps injury. When he comes back from the DL, will he find the form that has made him one of the most dominant arms in the game today? Or will the Rays arsenal of young, hot-shot arms need to continue to pick up the slack. Alex Cobb and Matt Moore have been spectacular, but how long can the Rays continue to turn to Roberto “Don’t call me Fausto” Hernandez before the wheels fall off?

I guess you just have to give credit to where credit is due. That means praising Joe Maddon for another superb managerial job. Once again he has proven that he is one of the best, if not the best manager in all of baseball. What he is able to do year in and year out with the Rays, the talent he is provided, and the limited budget is amazing. Just when you think this is the year when the Rays finally lose their mojo and he surprises everyone. Again, you can’t give the guy enough credit. It has to be the glasses.

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