How the Rays proved in May that they can win it all in October

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

For a long time, I've considered the Tampa Bay Rays to be baseball's little miracle, succeeding in the sport's toughest division -- the American League East -- despite low payrolls, low attendance figures and a stadium situation that remains unresolved.

That view is a little unfair, though, because in one sense, the Rays are no different from the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Dodgers or Houston Astros or Atlanta Braves -- they expect to contend for a World Series every season.

They have made the playoffs the past four seasons, but there always seems some surprise that they're doing it again. Perhaps that's because they turn the roster over rapidly and often rely upon depth more than star power. In 2019, they won 96 games, but their four best players that season (Charlie Morton, Austin Meadows, Willy Adames and Tommy Pham) are long gone. They reached the World Series in 2020, but that was kind of a scrappy team with a great bullpen. The 2021 team hit a lot of home runs and won 100 games even though its two pitchers with the most innings had ERAs over 5.00. Last year's team snuck in with 86 wins mainly due to the emergence of Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen and Jeffrey Springs. Now two of those three are injured -- and this still looks like the best Rays team ever, except with two young stars to build around in McClanahan and Wander Franco.

Since 2019, only the Dodgers and Astros have won more games; since 2008, only the Dodgers, Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals. The Rays are not a miracle -- they're an exceptional organization, only one that's less celebrated.

The national spotlight fell on them after they began the season with 13 consecutive wins and finished April at 23-6 with an incredible plus-103 run differential. That first month put them on an early pace to become one of the greatest teams of all time. There were still skeptics, however, since the Rays dominated a soft schedule and in their two toughest series, against the Toronto Blue Jays and Astros, they dropped four of six games.

May, on the other hand, presented a much more difficult slate of opponents, so we got a better idea of the Rays' potential greatness. Let's go back series by series and see what we learned.

May 2-4: vs. Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates entered this series nearly as hot as the Rays, with a 20-9 record and as winners of 11 of their past 13 games. The Rays beat them 4-1, 8-1 and 3-2. In the finale, Zach Eflin tossed seven scoreless innings and struck out 10 with no walks -- the first time in his career he recorded double-digit strikeouts with no free passes. Eflin was one of the more intriguing free agent signings of the offseason as the Rays gave him a three-year, $40 million contract -- not only the largest free agent deal in franchise history but one to a pitcher with a 4.49 career ERA who had pitched just 181 innings over the previous two seasons.

What did the Rays see? A guy who throws strikes -- Eflin averaged just 1.5 walks per nine over the 2021-22 seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies. "In an era of power and velocity, he's an artist," president of baseball operations Erik Neander said in December when the club signed Eflin. A better defense behind him -- certainly better than the ones the Phillies have thrown out there during Eflin's career -- combined with the Rays' ability to improve a pitcher's repertoire meant the signing made a lot of sense.

Indeed, Eflin improved to 4-0 after beating the Pirates and is now 7-1 with a 3.17 ERA -- allowing just seven walks in 54 innings. Sure enough, the Rays have tweaked things a little bit. He has increased his cutter usage from 15% to 31% and nearly completely ditched his four-seamer, which he threw 16% of the time last year, to stick with his sinker, with the cutter/sinker combo playing successfully off each other. The biggest change, however, might simply be the defense: He had a career .303 batting average allowed on balls in play with the Phillies and it's at .280 with the Rays.

"Some guys out-stuff you. Some guys out-execute you. He's got a little bit of a combination of both," manager Kevin Cash said of Eflin after the win on May 4.

With the sweep of Pittsburgh, the Rays improved to 26-6 -- the best 32-game start since the 1984 Detroit Tigers went 27-5.

Lesson learned: They already had one ace in McClanahan. They potentially had a second in Springs, but he went down for the season with Tommy John surgery in April. The Eflin signing now looks not only particularly astute, but necessary.

May 5-7: vs. New York Yankees

OK, so the Pirates had cooled after that hot April. This would be the first real test for the Rays -- and it was a terrific series with three one-run games, two of those going the Rays' way.

The Rays won the first game 5-4 while wearing their old Devil Rays uniforms -- the retro look that's now much more appealing than when the Devil Rays were losing 100 games every season. The go-ahead run scored in the seventh when Yankees left fielder Jake Bauers dropped a catchable fly ball and turned it into a double -- and then kicked the ball, allowing Yandy Diaz to score from first base (instant replay overruled the tag play at home, as Diaz was originally called out). While bad Yankees defense lost the game, the Rays won with some good defense of their own. Jose Siri ranged into deep center field to corral the final out of the game, while Josh Lowe earlier made a diving catch in right field with two runners on.

When the Rays acquired Siri last season from the Astros, they knew he could play center field. Outfield defense has long been a Rays trademark, and when longtime center fielder Kevin Kiermaier left as a free agent, Siri was given the chance as the regular. He missed two weeks in April with a hamstring strain, but he's now hitting .243/.292/.563 with nine home runs. He's not going to be a high-average or high-OBP guy, but the power and defense make him useful. Lowe, meanwhile, has broken out in his sophomore season, hitting .300/.349/.581 with 11 home runs.

The Yankees won the next game 3-2 with three runs in the eighth off the Tampa Bay bullpen, but the Rays won the finale 8-7 in a game Gerrit Cole started for the Yankees. Christian Bethancourt hit a big three-run homer off Cole in the sixth, the Rays threw out a runner at home in the top of the 10th and then Isaac Paredes singled in the winning run.

Lesson learned: With guys like Siri and Lowe contributing, the Rays' lineup is deeper than ever and much more powerful than last year's team, which ranked 11th in the AL with 139 home runs. Through Monday, this year's team already has 101 home runs -- most in the majors -- and owns a 136 wRC+ (park-adjusted weighted runs created), which easily leads the majors. In the wild-card era (since 1998), the highest single-season wRC+ belongs to the 2019 Astros at 124.

May 8-10: at Baltimore Orioles

The Rays won 3-0 behind McClanahan to improve to 29-7, but then lost 4-2 and 2-1. At this point, the Rays were 29-9, on pace for 124 wins -- but the Orioles were only 4.5 games back, off to their own blazing start.

Lesson learned: The AL East is going to be absolutely brutal and wonderful all season long.

May 11-14: at New York Yankees

In the first game of the series, Drew Rasmussen pitched seven scoreless innings, allowing just two hits, as the Rays won 8-2. In recent years, no team has been more astute at finding pitchers from other organizations than the Rays, and Rasmussen had been a shining example of this -- although his journey to the majors began when the Rays drafted him 31st overall out of Oregon State in 2017. The Rays didn't sign him due to concerns with his post-draft physical (he had Tommy John surgery as a sophomore), so Rasmussen returned to OSU, where he did indeed undergo a second TJ surgery. The Brewers drafted him in the sixth round in 2018, and he reached the majors as a reliever in 2020. The Rays acquired him early in the 2021 season along with J.P. Feyereisen for Willy Adames and Trevor Richards (in a deal, to be fair, that worked out for both teams).

The Rays eventually moved Rasmussen back into a starting role. He developed a new cutter and had a breakout season in 2022 (11-7, 2.84), and after his gem against the Yankees, he was 4-2 with a 2.62 ERA. Going back to 2021, he was 18-9 in 46 career starts with a 2.63 ERA. While still relatively anonymous, he had become one of the better starters in the league. Then came the crushing news: The day after his start, the Rays placed Rasmussen on the 60-day injured list with a flexor strain in his forearm, announcing that he would be shut down for eight weeks and then would start building up again -- assuming all goes well, given that a flexor strain is often a precursor to Tommy John surgery.

This gets us to the dirty little secret with the Rays: As good as they are at finding and developing pitchers, they have trouble keeping them healthy.

They had turned Springs from a journeyman reliever into a potential Cy Young candidate before his injury. In recent years, Tyler Glasnow, Yonny Chirinos, Colin Poche and Jalen Beeks all underwent Tommy John surgery. So did Shane Baz, who is out for all of 2023 while rehabbing. Reliever Andrew Kittredge, an All-Star in 2021, pitched just 20 innings last season and has missed all of 2023 with elbow issues. Colby White was one of the best relievers in the minors in 2021 but has yet to reach the majors after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Brendan McKay had shoulder issues and then underwent Tommy John surgery, which has him sidelined for all of 2023.

With Rasmussen injured and Glasnow out since the start of the season with an oblique strain, the Rays would now have to get through this difficult stretch of May without three-fifths of their projected starting rotation. Throw in a season-ending knee injury to key reliever Garrett Cleavinger and the assumption that the Rays have an endless supply of pitchers that they pluck out of Durham or off the waiver wire -- or from some secret underwater lair in the Gulf of Mexico -- will be severely tested.

Meanwhile, the Yankees won 5-4 the next night when Anthony Rizzo hit a two-run homer off Jason Adam in the eighth inning and then won the third game 9-8 as New York knocked out McClanahan after four innings and Aaron Judge homered twice. Rays exposed? Hardly. They bounced back with an 8-7 win as Taylor Walls belted a grand slam -- yet another player hitting much better than projected. After hitting .172 with eight home runs in 466 plate appearances in 2022, the switch-hitter made some minor mechanical tweaks after visiting a hitting instructor outside the organization. The changes have produced more hard contact and a higher launch angle that has already produced seven home runs and a .488 slugging percentage.

Maybe it's a surprise that some of these guys are hitting at this level, but it shouldn't be a surprise that they've improved. "They have shown the ability coming up through the minor leagues that they can hit," Cash said after Walls' grand slam. "I think we thought it was more a matter of time. It doesn't always come out of the gate."

Anyway, the Rays hold on to split the four-game series when Judge flew out to Siri on the warning track to end it. Adam left a first-pitch sweeper over the middle of the plate and hung his head as Judge connected -- sure he had just allowed the game-tying home run. "I thought it was 30 rows deep," Adam said. "But thankfully, [Judge] missed it more than I thought."

Overall, the Rays played the Yankees seven times in 10 days with six of the games decided by one run -- two of the best series we'll see all season. The Rays went 4-3 -- and then came perhaps the most exciting game of the season so far.

Lesson learned: The Rays' pitching depth will be tested -- but if the offense keeps rolling, it might be dominant enough to cover the injuries to the rotation.

May 16-18: at New York Mets

On May 16, the Rays beat Justin Verlander, knocking him around for eight hits, two home runs (both by Paredes) and six runs. Then came the game of the year. The Rays led 2-0, the Mets tied it in the bottom of the seventh, the Rays took a 6-3 lead, Francisco Alvarez hit a game-tying three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth off Adam, the Rays scored twice in the 10th and then Pete Alonso won it with a three-run walk-off blast off Pete Fairbanks. Wow.

Therein lies the biggest concern I have about this Rays team: Is this a championship-caliber bullpen? Adam, let go five times in his career, came out of nowhere last season to post a 1.56 ERA and hold batters to a .147 average. He's got kind of a funky short-arm delivery and isn't overpowering for a modern closer, relying on a changeup and sweeper. He has been a little more hittable this season with a .200 average and four home runs allowed. Meanwhile, Fairbanks has a 1.26 ERA over the past two seasons -- but has pitched just 35 2/3 innings and is once again back on the IL with hip inflammation.

Factor in that the Rays have had to return to using an occasional bullpen arm to open due to all the injuries in the rotation and the bullpen depth is hitting a crisis point: The Rays have already churned through 26 pitchers (not counting two position players who have pitched). Rays relievers lead the majors in innings -- yes, even more than the Oakland Athletics -- and rank last in strikeout rate (yes, lower than the A's). We know the Rays' history of conjuring up good major league relievers out of thin air -- Adam and Fairbanks being two examples -- but that supposition is being stretched to the limits.

The Mets took the third game to take the series and drop the Rays to 32-13 -- still on pace for 115 wins. But the Orioles at this point were still just 3.5 games behind.

Lesson learned: Strong bullpens have been a hallmark of the Rays in recent seasons, but this might be the team's soft spot in 2023, especially if Fairbanks can't stay healthy and Adam continues to be homer-prone.

May 19-21: vs. Milwaukee Brewers

After those intense games against the two New York teams, a more subdued series followed against the Brewers, with the Rays taking two out of three, including a 1-0 victory behind McClanahan. In the Saturday night game, Diaz returned after missing four games and hit his 11th home run. Let's talk about Diaz, who is second in MLB in wRC+ through Monday, sandwiched between two much more famous hitters in Judge and Yordan Alvarez.

I don't know if Diaz is the strongest player in the majors, but he's certainly the most likely to win a Mr. Universe contest. Despite his stature, he has never hit for much power -- though he possesses excellent plate discipline and doesn't strike out much. He hit nine home runs last season in 473 at-bats and his career high is 14 back in the rabbit-ball year of 2019. His issue has been getting the ball in the air enough to take advantage of his strength. His average launch angle so far this season is a career-best 9.3 degrees -- still below the MLB average but high enough that his fly ball rate has improved from 19.6% last season to 27% this year. He's also simply barreling up more balls than he has in the past with a hard-hit rate that ranks in the top 10 in MLB. Add it up and he's hitting .320/.420/.598 with 12 home runs and nearly as many walks (26) as strikeouts (29).

It's certainly unusual for a 31-year-old to break out with a career season like this, but Diaz has always had a good approach to build off -- and he did hit .296 with a .401 OBP last season. Even though he's not the fastest guy around, Diaz has been hitting leadoff to take advantage of his on-base ability, a lineup Cash started deploying last season. It's another example of the Rays thinking outside the box, using a non-conventional slow runner in the leadoff position.

"To see Yandy Díaz come up as the first hitter an opponent team faces is incredible," Eflin said after the game on May 20. "He's everything you want in a leadoff hitter."

Lesson learned: Diaz has been hitting like an MVP candidate -- although he might not even be the best MVP candidate on the team. Franco is tied with Freddie Freeman for second in MLB (behind Judge) in FanGraphs WAR among position players and leads in Baseball-Reference WAR. Diaz is eighth. And Randy Arozarena is 10th. The Rays have many weapons.

May 22-25: vs. Toronto Blue Jays

The Rays took three of four from the Jays -- although a 20-1 loss cut into the team's run differential (a category that the Rangers now lead). While Diaz doesn't run, the Rays have other players who can do that -- as witnessed by the seven stolen bases they recorded in a 6-3 win on May 25. The Rays have always loved fast, athletic players, and they're certainly loving the new rules that benefit teams that steal bases. They lead the majors with 75 steals, 17 more than the No. 2 team, and when they face an especially weak pitcher-catcher combo, they can go wild: two games with seven steals and four others with at least four. Franco leads the team with 20 steals, Walls is a perfect 14-of-14 and Josh Lowe has 13.

So, to sum up: The Rays lead the majors in home runs and stolen bases. And they're tied with the Reds for the highest percentage of extra bases taken (advancing more than one base on a single or more than two on a double). Oh, and they're also tied with the Nationals and Royals for the youngest group of position players, averaging 26.9 years of age (weighted for playing time). That gets back to Cash's comment about the improvement in some of the younger players: It shouldn't be unexpected. Even Franco is still just 22 years old -- and while his bat has been impressive, his defense has also taken a huge step forward, to the point where he looks like a Gold Glove candidate.

Lesson learned: No team can blow off a 20-1 loss like the Rays. And fast players are fun. And 22-year-old shortstops who can hit, run and field are really fun.

May 26-28 vs. Los Angeles Dodgers

The Rays took two out of three. Sunday's game was an 11-10 affair with Adam getting a two-inning save with four strikeouts, perhaps a sign he's getting back into his 2022 groove.

Lesson learned: Yeah, the Rays are for real. We'll throw out the Pirates series and the Rays still ran through a 23-game gauntlet against the Yankees, Orioles, Mets, Blue Jays, Brewers and Dodgers and went 13-10. The pitching depth is a concern, although Glasnow made his first start in this series and struck out eight in 4 1/3 innings. A top three of McClanahan, Glasnow and Eflin is a quality trio, and rookie Taj Bradley has a 42-5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in six starts. We'll see if Rasmussen can make it back after the All-Star break.

The Rays did lose two in a row to the Chicago Cubs, 1-0 on Monday and 2-1 on Tuesday, to drop their overall May record to 16-12. The Orioles are still breathing down their necks, and the Yankees -- and Judge -- are finally heating up. The Texas Rangers have looked impressive in the AL West, and the Astros are playing well after scuffling in April. But these Rays are absolutely loaded on offense, McClanahan is 8-1 with a 2.07 ERA and Cash certainly seems to usually get the best out of his bullpens.

The Rays are 39-18, on pace for 111 wins, and they proved in May that they're the best team in baseball as we start the summer.