Pitching, defense and three-run home runs? It’s a formula that has worked going back to the days of Earl Weaver and beyond. An inning into Saturday’s game, the Rays had all of that going for them: Designated hitter Luke Scott had already hammered a bomb off Boston's Clay Buchholz to plate a trio of runs, reigning Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson was on the mound, and nobody is more alertly creative and productive on defense than Joe Maddon’s ballclub.
Unfortunately, none of that mattered all that much in the next eight innings of action against the Red Sox. Boston’s bats hammered the Rays, hitting five home runs, and made their initial case for why they’ll still be able to score runs hand over fist without Carl Crawford or Jacoby Ellsbury. Rather than throw too much of a pity party for their life absent Ellsbury, just try to keep in mind that Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis provide an offensive platform that 29 other teams would be happy to work from. Counting out the Red Sox a week into the season or a half-inning into a ballgame is just silly; they’re still stacked.
What’s less silly is looking at the Rays’ challenges in the weeks and months to come. Tampa Bay's problem is that while the Red Sox opened up on offense, the Rays didn’t have the usual collection of moving parts to respond on offense or defense.
The Rays' pitching depth is the envy of the industry, but Joel Peralta has taken a series of beatings out of the bullpen en route to handing the closer’s job to Fernando Rodney. Maybe that will work out the way Kyle Farnsworth did last year, but Peralta’s not that far removed from his days as waiver bait, and Rodney’s reputation for flammability perhaps exceeds Farnsworth’s -- before last season.
The Rays being the Rays, they get a pass on running risks other teams might shrink from, but this year’s bullpen confection is still a soufflé with as much potential to flop as rise. Having one less body around proved expensive when a three-run game still in reach became a blowout in the eighth thanks to rookie Dane De La Rosa’s five-run debut against that Red Sox offense.
The other early issue in terms of reaping the downside of risk is that their offense is cranking less than most others in the early going, ranking just 10th in the American League in runs scored. That doesn’t mean that much in itself, because we’re still not even talking about two full weeks’ worth of action. It’s what you get when you wind up with Jeff Keppinger and Sean Rodriguez as everyday players.
That wasn’t part of any plan, but that’s the upshot of being without the flexibility of having Ben Zobrist moving around on the field to wherever he’s needed while Maddon plays matchup games on offense with bit parts like Rodriguez or Keppinger. They knew they wouldn’t get many runs out of Jose Molina or Jose Lobaton as their catchers, but that’s another slot you can’t count on in terms of offense, and another reason why the Rays have that much less margin for error in the early going. The Rays’ offense is the sort of high-flying act that can’t really afford to lose certain key regulars for a great length of time.
Which is why much will change for the better soon, once B.J. Upton comes back from the disabled list and returns to his spot in center field. The Rays won’t simply get the benefit of adding his bat to the everyday lineup or his glove to the defense. They’ll also reap the tactical in-game benefit of all of the situations in which Maddon will be able to use his valuable part-time contributors -- like Keppinger and Rodriguez -- to his advantage. Matt Joyce won’t have to face the left-handed pitchers he can’t hit. That’s not because of what Upton does and will do, but because of the multiple benefits the Rays get from having him healthy.
Taking a few chances on “extra guys” is not automatically bad -- far from it, especially when you’re dealing with budget handicaps as the Rays do. Taking a chance on Scott was an eminently worthwhile low-cost risk: After averaging 25 homers per season for three years for the Orioles, Scott’s injury-wracked 2011 brought him into the Rays’ orbit as far as his sale price as a free agent. If he gives the Rays’ lineup a third source of power from the left side beyond Carlos Pena and Joyce, you’ll have a lineup that gives opponents fits, just as it did in each of the past two years.
Add it up, and just like the bullpen, the Rays’ offense is a complicated proposition few other teams would risk. Handled as well as the Rays have and will, though, and it works … until you knock a key starter or two out of action for any great length of time. Expose their irregulars’ shortcomings, and the risk becomes one to the Rays’ bid for a postseason three-peat.
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Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.