ST. PETERSBURG - The first half of the Rays season certainly didn't lack for drama. David Price missed six starts with a triceps injury. Evan Longoria played through a painful right foot and took a slump into the All-Streak Break. The starting pitching was spotty and the bullpen was uncharacteristically unreliable. They were snowed out in Kansas City, should have been rained out in Cleveland and were rained out in Boston only to sit through a rain delay in the makeup.
The first trip to Boston ended moments before a pair of bombs went off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Price argued with home plate umpire Tom Hallion over something Hallion said, and Jeremy Hellickson was tossed from his first baseball game. Wil Myers arrived. The Rays clubhouse at Tropicana Field was visited by penguins, a cockatoo, a DJ, a band and a magician. Fernando Rodney buzzed Miguel Cabrera, Tigers manager Jim Leyland objected and Ben Zobrist was the object of some Detroit payback. And through all that, the Rays finished the first half with wins in 17 of their last 21 games, a surge that lifted them into second place in the division, 2.5 games behind the first place Red Sox, and to the top of the Wild Card standings. So, before the schedule resumes Friday night in Toronto, here is a look at the season so far. MOST VALUABLE PLAYER Matt Moore, James Loney, Yunel Escobar and Joel Peralta are all worthy candidates, but Evan Longoria gets the nod here. His slump heading into the break notwithstanding, Longoria has been the Rays' most productive hitter with team-highs in home runs (18), RBIs (52) and walks (44). Hot or not, opposing pitchers have to respect Longoria's presence in the lineup. The batting order is set up to put runners on base ahead of Longoria and to have productive hitters behind him to force pitchers to pitch to him. Longoria's fielding has been nothing short of gold glove. That he's willing to play through injuries sends a strong message in the clubhouse. PLEASANT SURPRISE Jose Lobaton's production at the plate stands out but not as much as what the Rays are receiving from left-handed rookie Alex Torres, who went from someone who couldn't throw his fastball for strikes to someone who would not allow a run. Torres was recalled June 1 to add a fresh arm to a tired bullpen and continued his run of scoreless innings, eventually stretching it to 20. Along the way he morphed from a long reliever to someone manager Joe Maddon now trusts with an eighth-inning lead. The emergence of Torres adds a fourth arm to the Rays late-inning relief corps and could help take some wear off Peralta, which will help keep the league's best setup man fresh down the stretch. BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT The 2012 bullpen set the bar awfully high for this year's group, so any falloff would be noticed. Making it more dramatic was Fernando Rodney's blown saves - five in his first 14 chances - and the early season leads given up by Jake McGee and Joel Peralta. No one is ever perfect in this game, but it's mindboggling the Rays lost 21 times when leading at some point during a game, including nine times when they held the lead in the seventh inning or later. Manager Joe Maddon said he hopes those blown games do not come back to haunt the team's chances of reaching the postseason. HIGH POINT David Price returned from the disabled list July 2 apparently ready to make up for lost time. He struck out 10 and held the Astros to only three hits in seven innings while throwing only 70 pitches - 48 of them strikes. Price was 1-4 with a 5.24 ERA in nine starts before he was sidelined with a strained left triceps. The Rays figured he would pitch better once he returned from the DL, but Price has been better than better. He looks like his 2012 Cy Young Award-winning self, which is exactly what the Rays need in the second half. Notice how the rest of the rotation perked up once Price returned. LOW POINT Alex Cobb's won/loss record was the farthest thing from anyone's mind as he lay motionless on the Tropicana Field mound after being struck on the right side of his head by a line drive from Kansas City's Eric Hosmer. Luckily, Cobb's injuries weren't live threatening. He suffered a concussion and vertigo and is on pace to rejoin the team either later this month or in early August. Still, with Price already on the DL, Moore going through his mini-slump and Jeremy Hellickson still a few starts away from straighten himself out, the Rays sorely needed Cobb (6-2, 2.95) during their road trip through Boston and New York. BIGGEST WEAKNESS For all the talk about controlling the running game, the Rays are doing a lousy job of it this season. Jose Molina (11-for-44) and Jose Lobaton (6-for-40) are struggling to throw out opposing base stealers, though not all of that can be attributed to them. The Rays pitchers are not the best at holding runners on base. Allowing free bases is also a problem. Rays pitchers have thrown 41 wild pitches, the fourth-highest in the American League - 24 with Molina behind the plate and 17 with Lobaton catching. Molina has been charged with seven passes balls; Lobaton two. BEST OFFSEASON MOVES The Rays returned from the Winter Baseball Meetings in December with a first baseman and a shortstop. James Loney has continued the standard of Gold Glove-caliber defense at first base, while Yunel Escobar has been a major upgrade to the infield defense, committing only four errors through 96 games. Both have been offensive upgrades, Loney with his .315 batting average and his ability to provide protection for Longoria, and Escobar with his punch at the bottom of the order - .278 since April 17, including a .328 average with runners in scoring position. INJURY REPORT Cobb and Brandon Gomes (right lat strain) are on the mend. Gomes should be back this month. Cobb is hoping to return this month, though early August seems reasonable. Juan Carlos Oviedo is an interesting case. The right-hander is recovering from Tommy John surgery last September. Signed as a minor league free agent, Oviedo's rehab has progressed to throwing bullpens. If healthy by September, the former Marlins closer could be another arm for the bullpen in September. Jeff Niemann, who had right shoulder surgery in April, is out for the season. MINOR LEAGUERS TO WATCH With Wil Myers now in right field, the Rays are a little short on Triple-A prospects. That's not to say Ryan Roberts, Jake Odorizzi or Alex Colome won't be back at some point to add depth or fill a need. For fresh faces, it's possible Durham second baseman Vince Belnome, first baseman/outfielder Leslie Anderson or infielders Tim Beckham or Mike Fontenot could be called up in September. SECONF-HALF OUTLOOK The Rays open the second half with a tough 10-game road trip through Toronto, Boston and New York then come home to face Arizona, the NL West leaders. We'll find out soon enough if the strong play during the final 14 games was because the Rays finally put it together or if they took advantage of a soft schedule. Maddon said his team finished the first half playing its best baseball of the season with everything finally working in synch - pitching, defense and offense. The offense is an improvement over last season, which has taken some of the pressure off the rotation. Price's return reenergized the rotation, and getting Cobb back will provide another boost. The Rays haven't been in this good of shape heading into the second half since 2010, the last time they won the division. That goal is very much in play. To get there, it will take their staples - pitching and defense. The improved offense will help. [email protected] (813) 259-7227 Twitter: @RMooneyTBO