Rays of hope: Tampa Bay’s underdog attitude paves way for potential powerhouse

first_imgNEW YORK — Hope is a dangerous thing.If that reads familiar, it’s because it’s an iconic quote muttered by Ellis “Red” Redding in the classic 1994 film “The Shawshank Redemption.” The line isn’t dripping with optimism or gusto. Morgan Freeman’s velvety baritone delivery doesn’t give the scene warm-hug-from-grandpa feels. Rather, it’s a warning — hope is delightful and comforting, but it’s also precarious. Hope can carry you great distances and propel people and teams to accomplish things previously thought unattainable — but it can also pull the chair out from underneath you.When we think of hope, it’s often in the positive, and we don’t attach danger to it. In 2019, the Rays embody the best of the concept: They’re en route to another 90-win season and they’re thinking October, not spoiler. They reinforced the rotation in the offseason and have fully embraced new-age pitching ideas. The organization is being rewarded for banking on hope.MORE: Watch ‘ChangeUp,’ a new MLB live whiparound show on DAZNThis year’s club is also loaded with talent — the roster is the deepest it has been in years. That’s not to say the roster isn’t flawed. The Rays have had bullpen issues. Starting pitching is wearing a bit thin. They don’t have true power in the lineup. And for all of the organization’s faults — we know them; the payroll restrictions, the stadium, the lame two-city idea — Rays players praise scouts and front-office executives for putting the team in a position to succeed. So, what’s it like being on a Rays team when the stars are arriving and aligning?”I’ve been trying my best not to look at public opinion. We’ve just got to show up and play,” rookie first baseman Nate Lowe told Sporting News.Then he made an interesting admission: “It’s nice to get a little recognition.”That recognition is coming in several forms. First, Lowe, in just his third week in the majors, was announced as the American League Player of the Week after hitting .471 with three home runs and a 1.059 slugging percentage in four games. Second, the Rays will be playing a nationally televised game Wednesday night vs. the Yankees, something that’s foreign to a franchise viewed as a perennial underdog.Needless to say, it means a lot to players in the Rays’ clubhouse.”The less attention that gets paid to you, you stay hungry,” outfielder Austin Meadows said. “You’re not always in the spotlight. You continue to play hard. You don’t get noticed a lot, but I feel like that’s kind of a good thing when you’re wanting to win, and wanting to beat really, really good teams. “The teams that get the stardom — the Yankees and Red Sox that get the stardom as they do — for us, it just keeps us hungry and more motivated to go out there and play.”Meadows, who was acquired from the Pirates last July in the Chris Archer trade, knows he’s part of the Rays’ future. Along with Nate Lowe, Brandon Lowe (no relation in bloodline or pronunciation), Blake Snell, Willy Adames and others, he’s a key piece in a new core that’s solidifying.GATTO: Incredible bulk: Why the Rays’ pitching strategy actually makes senseThe last time a Rays core ascended, the team made the World Series under Joe Maddon in 2008. Back then, Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton and Ben Zobrist played vital roles in the run and James Shields headed up a solid rotation. Since that World Series berth, Tampa Bay has finished last in the AL East once, won the division once and registered 90 or more wins in five of those seasons, most recently in 2018.Last season is proving not to be a one-off. Outfielder Kevin Kiermaier, the longest-tenured Ray and the team’s “elder” statesman, sees something different with this year’s squad.”The camaraderie that this team has had since Day 1 is unlike any other team that I’ve ever been a part of,” Kiermaier said. “We all get along, we all like each other. That’s been different in that aspect. But I also think we just have more talent in the room than I’ve ever been part of.”The talent is obvious. Brandon Lowe is a Rookie of the Year candidate. Tyler Glasnow, who came over with Meadows last year, was in the midst of a Cy Young campaign before suffering a forearm injury. Oh, and the Rays also have a top-three farm system filled with major league-ready prospects.Considering how many jokes are flung in the Rays’ direction, the amount of success they’ve had in a division that features Brinks-truck organizations in New York and Boston should earn them more praise and recognition.”We have a chip on our shoulder, honestly,” Meadows said. “We go out there, we play every single day hard for each other. We realize where we’re at. We realize who we have to compete with: the Yankees, the Red Sox, all those guys. For us, we’re hungry, each and every day. … We’re all young, and we all play for each other, and that’s a recipe for winning.”MORE: Austin Meadows talks rhinos, trades and more”Definitely, the youth movement has taken over the clubhouse,” Kiermaier, 29, said, echoing Meadows’ words. “This is an absolute joy to be a part of. It’s fun being the older guy, ’cause I can sit here and try to give guys a lot of words of advice or drop wisdom on them here or there. “People helping people is what makes the world go ’round, and the baseball world. I learned from other guys, and now I’m sitting here, giving back, teaching the younger guys. And hopefully in four or five years, they can do the same with guys being called up, as well.”And what will happen in four or five years? Should the Rays finally secure that elusive World Series victory, it’ll be the equivalent of Andy Dufresne wading through hundreds of yards of foulness you can’t even imagine. Say what you will about Tropicana Field, which bears a slight resemblance to Shawshank Prison (not in function, but in form) — the young men playing underneath that dome are playing well.The Rays enter Wednesday night’s matchup with the Yankees 1-1 in their four-game set and 5-10 vs. New York overall this season. But the head-to-head record since 2010 has been much closer than some care to admit: The Yankees have won 95 games against the Rays, while the Rays have notched 88 Ws of their own. They have an 87-90 record against Boston over the same stretch. This is a team that’s on the verge of changing the narrative. It’s time to start paying attention.Will the Rays win it all in 2019? Who’s to say? We still have to get past the trade deadline — the Rays’ front office may have to sacrifice some of that young talent to add to the bullpen and the offense. We also have to get through the late summer, when young teams have been know to hit a wall. For now, though, a few things are apparent: They have the talent. They have a window. And Monday night’s hero, Travis d’Arnaud, believes they have something else.”There’s a lot of hope.”And that’s a dangerous thing.last_img

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