ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- When Kevin Cash returned to the Boston Red Sox in July 2010, the team needing another backup catcher and Theo Epstein making a trade with Houston, the reaction when he walked into the clubhouse was raucous.
“There was a lot of yelling and screaming," Cash recalled Saturday.
It went both ways. John Farrell, who was Sox pitching coach at the time, laughed this spring when he told of how Cash was cheeky enough to call out David Ortiz.
"There might be some truth to that," Cash said. "But I honestly don’t remember what I said."
He does, however, have total recall of the zinger delivered by then-Sox manager Terry Francona.
"One of his better lines," Cash said. "Tito said, 'We got [Doug] Mirabelli a police escort when he came back. We got you a f---- rickshaw.'
"It was all joking. Those guys were so good to me, the way they treated me. That was a superstar team when I was there. For some crummy backup catcher, 25th player on the roster, we enjoyed each other a lot."
Cash retired as a player in 2011. Four years later, after two seasons scouting and the last two spent as Francona's bullpen coach in Cleveland, Cash is here as the youngest manager in the majors, a native son of Tampa who can say he played in the Little League World Series and the College World Series (Florida State) and who possesses a 2007 World Series ring from the Red Sox, even though he was left off the postseason roster.
Now he is managing the Tampa Bay Rays, the team for which he played 13 games in 2005, an unexpected bonus for his father, Mike, an original Rays season-ticket holder. Tasked with replacing the much-decorated Joe Maddon, who moved on to bigger and better with the Chicago Cubs, Cash -- who never made much of an impact as a player (.183 lifetime average) -- is nearing the halfway point of his first season as manager with the Rays in first place in the AL East.
A team that over the last year has parted ways with star pitchers James Shields and David Price, valuable utilityman Ben Zobrist, celebrity manager Maddon and cerebral GM Andrew Friedman is nine games ahead of the last-place Red Sox, the popular preseason favorite, after Saturday’s 4-1 win over Boston.
As usual, they're doing it with a payroll that is a fraction of Boston's richest ever.
The Sox have the stash. The Rays have Cash.
So far, it's a slam-dunk for Tampa Bay, a feat made more remarkable by the fact that the Rays' starting rotation has been decimated by injuries. Alex Cobb is out for the season with Tommy John surgery. Matt Moore had Tommy John surgery a year ago last April and has yet to pitch this season. Drew Smyly made just three starts before he went down with a torn left labrum, and Jake Odorizzi joined them on the DL a little over two weeks ago with an oblique strain.
How have they not only survived, but thrived?
They play great defense, have a strong bullpen, score just enough to win, have gotten an ace performance from Chris Archer (9-2, 2.05 ERA) and have leaned on 16 rookies, most in the majors. Rookie pitchers have made 35 starts this season, including the first two games of this series, in which Alex Colome gave up three runs in six innings Friday and Matt Andriese held the Sox to one hit over six scoreless innings Saturday.
"You’ve seen from the start of the season the way our pitchers have picked up the slack -- they've been unbelievable," Cash said. "The bullpen's been great, but what these young guys -- Andriese, Erasmo [Ramirez], Colome, [Nathan] Karns -- they've really evolved quickly into pretty good pitchers for us.
"Generally, that doesn't happen. You don't get four young pitchers all click at one time. They’re clicking right now."
It's not just on the pitching side. Joey Butler is a 29-year-old minor-league lifer who raked while playing with Cash in his last season in pro ball, spent with Triple-A Round Rock in 2011. The manager recommended the Rays pick him up, and Butler is leading all AL rookies in hitting, batting 87 percentage points higher than Sox DH David Ortiz (.317 to .230).
Jake Elmore, who is not a rookie but already is on his fourth big-league team in four seasons and -- at 5-foot-9 -- is the shortest first baseman the Rays have ever used, hit a two-run home run off Wade Miley on Saturday. Another journeyman, Rene Rivera, whose .162 average coming into Saturday’s game would rank as the majors' lowest if he had enough at-bats to qualify, took Matt Barnes deep for Tampa Bay's third run Saturday.
And the defense is impregnable, especially in center field with Kevin Kiermaier.
"He covers more ground than any center fielder I’ve ever seen," Cash said. "A human highlight reel every night."
It all calls into question whether there is a better way to construct a roster than spending $183 million on two players, like the Red Sox did last winter.
"It's still early," Cash said, adding a note of caution, "but the guys in this clubhouse have been unbelievable."
As for the guy in the manager's office? He said he hadn't thought much about the job until the interview process started, at the time hoping that maybe someone would make him a base coach or bench coach. But Francona prepped him, the Indians' front office put him through a mock interview, and Cash adjusted his aim much higher.
"I probably was a little overwhelmed," he said, "but once the interview process started, you build some confidence. I thought, I can do this with the right people around. I'm so fortunate to have all these [coaches] who have been here. We've been able to create this atmosphere that's unbelievable. The transition has been almost seamless."
Moore and Odorizzi might both be back around the All-Star break. Smyly is a longshot to come back. Eventually, regulars such as first baseman James Loney and outfielders John Jaso and Desmond Jennings will be back, too, which should only make the Rays stronger.
It also will mean that come October, Cash might need a better ride than a rickshaw. That police escort that Mirabelli got? Playoff teams get them, too.