If the Tampa Bay Rays climb out of this little ditch they dug themselves into during April and get back to playing the quality Rays baseball we've been used to seeing from them since 2008, it won't surprise me if we look back to this May 1 doubleheader at Fenway Park as a turning point in their season.
In particular, there are two at-bats that maybe will change the momentum of a team that had lost six of seven and 11 of their past 15 games to drop to 11-16 and in last place in the AL East.
The first came in the afternoon game, the Rays up 2-1 in the ninth inning, two outs, Dustin Pedroia on second, David Ortiz -- as menacing as ever after all these years -- up in an Ortiz type of moment. Rays manager Joe Maddon could have elected to have closer Grant Balfour pitch around Ortiz, but you can't really put the winning run on base. So Balfour went after Big Papi. Balfour started off with a slider on the outside corner that Ortiz took for a strike; then a fastball that was fouled off; then a curve, low and away and just off the plate that Ortiz bounced weakly back to the mound.
The second came in the evening game, the Rays holding another one-run lead in the bottom of the ninth thanks to Yunel Escobar's mammoth home run off Koji Uehara in the top of the frame. Balfour was back on the mound, but Shane Victorino led off with a double high off the Green Monster, bringing up Ortiz, again in an Ortiz type of moment. Ball, strike looking, soft grounder to first base. The next outs were big as well with Victorino on third base -- Balfour then struck out Mike Napoli looking on a 3-2 fastball down the middle and Xander Bogaerts looking on a 2-2 fastball -- but getting Ortiz for the second time in the doubleheader with the tying run in scoring position was huge.
The Rays had given up six or more runs in all six of those losses over their past seven games, including three games where they gave up nine runs. The starting rotation has a 4.58 ERA, 25th in the majors, while ranking next-to-last in innings per game. This has been the pitching staff of the Lou Piniella or Hal McRae Rays, not Maddon's clubs that have 90 or more games the past four seasons and five of six.
What's interesting about the Rays is they seem to have these stretches every season where they muddle through periods before everything clicks. Last season, they were 38-37 on June 22 before going on a 26-6 streak during which the pitching staff compiled a 2.34 ERA. Outside of that stretch, the team was only one game over .500 the rest of the season.
In 2012, the Rays were 51-49 on July 27 before going on a 19-6 stretch that got them back in the race. They also won 12 of their last 14 to win 90 games, although ultimately falling three wins short of the postseason.
In 2011, they were 53-50 on July 27, 11 1/2 games out of first place but would go 38-21 the rest of the year, winning the wild-card berth on the final day of the season.
In 2010, when they won 96 games, they did get off to a hot start -- 17-6 in April. They had another hot stretch from June 30 through Aug. 3 when they went 23-7.
So this has kind of been the Tampa way the past few seasons. Slog along through the first two to three months and then kick into gear. The question this year is whether this rotation will find another level. Despite the season-ending injury to Matt Moore, there are reasons to believe it can happen again. Ace David Price has a 4.75 ERA, but a 47/5 strikeout-walk ratio suggests he'll be fine. Alex Cobb is out because of an oblique strain but is expected to return in late May. The key guy is Chris Archer, who has the ability to line up behind those two as one of the best No. 3 starters in the league. He struggled with his control in Thursday's night game, walking five batters and getting pulled in the fifth, but he had walked five in his previous five games so those results look like an aberration.
The only good news about Tampa's slow start: The doubleheader sweep leaves them tied with the Red Sox at 13-16. And every team in the AL East has a negative run differential so far. So while the Rays may not be the Rays we're used to, the AL East may have slipped a notch from last year.
Which means I'm not betting against Tampa just yet.