ST. PETERSBURG - The Rays reached the halfway point of the season Saturday night, sitting fourth in a division that's a bit tighter than most predicted it would be 81 games ago. The Red Sox are the surprising leaders in the American League East. The Orioles are proving last year was not a fluke. The Yankees are somehow managing to keep it together in spite of all the injuries. The Blue Jays, for all their offseason noise and recent 11-game winning streak, sit in last place. Rays manager Joe Maddon predicts the division will remain this way through September with no team pulling away and none falling too far off the pace. If true, that will make for one heck of a stretch run as all five teams fight for the division title and, more than likely, one of the two wild-card slots. It also bodes well for the Rays, who have had an interesting first half filed with injuries and stretches of good hitting/no hitting, good starting pitching/no starting pitching and good relief pitching/no relief pitching.
At least they can catch the ball. Every so often it all comes together and this team looks like one that can eventually catch the Red Sox. Of course, it would help if they could beat the Red Sox - three wins in 12 games with seven remaining. So what do we know about the 2013 Rays at the midpoint of the season? Wil Myers is ready, and the Rays seem a better team with the rookie in right field. "He's kind of been a breath of fresh air for the club," bench coach Dave Martinez said. "We've played pretty well since he's been here." Evan Longoria is going to battle injuries, the plantar fasciitis in his right foot the latest in a long line of leg and foot injuries that have plagued him over the years. Yunel Escobar can play all-star caliber defense at shortstop. There is plenty of life in James Loney's bat to go with his Gold Glove defense. Jose Lobaton can handle things as a big-league catcher. The biggest surprise, of course, is the starting pitching. No one expected David Price to begin the year 1-4 with a 5.24 ERA in his first nine starts. His return Tuesday from a left triceps strain will give the team a jolt if he returns closer to his 2012 Cy Young Award-winning form. Price's injury and the concussion sustained by Alex Cobb tested the organization's depth at starting pitcher. Jake Odorizzi pitched well in the third of his three starts. Alex Colome has been OK in his past two starts, Chris Archer went into Saturday's start against the Tigers excited to keep rolling with the changes to his deliver made before his previous start at Yankee Stadium. Matt Moore is the lefty racking up the wins through the first half. Jeremy Hellickson seems to have licked the mind-boggling meltdowns that sabotaged more than a few solid outings. After a shaky start to the season, the bullpen is working well. Fernando Rodney looks like he did in 2012, and late-inning leads are once again safe. The offense is much more productive, especially with runners in scoring position, though you wouldn't know that when they play the Red Sox or Tigers. Escobar and Lobaton and, yes, even Jose Molina, have added life to the bottom of the order. The Rays were 43-38 at the halfway point last year with an anemic offense and horrible infield defense. Those problems have been fixed. It's the pitching that needs to be more consistent. A healthy Price and Cobb can do wonders toward that end. The good news is the Rays begin a stretch Monday where they play 14 games against the Astros (seven), Twins (four) and White Sox (three). Not a bad way to gain some ground on the division, especially since they come out of the break with a 10-game road trip through Toronto, Boston and New York. The Rays need to stay healthy, obviously, and they need to have more days when the offense, starting pitching and bullpen work in sync. Especially the starting pitching. And it will help if Maddon's prediction about the division rings true. [email protected] (813) 259-7227 Twitter: @RMooneyTBO