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Sunday, Aug 19, 2018
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What a long, strange and winning road trip it was for Rays

ANAHEIM, Calif. — The nearly Yanny-vs.-Laurel level national debate over their latest pitching strategy innovation of starting relievers isn't quite as entertaining today. The In-N-Out burgers in the clubhouse after the game weren't as tasty. The long flight home was going to be a little quieter.

But despite the frustration of another Sunday loss — doing their best Bucs impersonation – in a 5-2 defeat to Shohei Ohtani and the Angels, the Rays have reason to feel good, or at least better, about themselves as they head into a series with the AL East-rival Red Sox on Tuesday at the Trop.

Think about what you thought of them last Monday morning, as they had just lost for the sixth time in seven games, dropping three of four to a struggling Orioles team capped by a 17-1 embarrassment.

And compare that to what you think now, as they rebounded to reel off six straight wins, sweeping the Royals in Kansas City and taking the first three against the Angels, completing what seemed after their miserable 1-8 start an unlikely climb back to .500 at 22-22, before Sunday's loss.

"I think we showed a lot of character on this road trip, getting our butts kicked in Baltimore and then being able to bounce back in Kansas City and come here and win a series against a tough team like the Angels,'' veteran outfielder Denard Span said. "Definitely a successful road trip. It could've gotten ugly if we would have hung our heads after the Baltimore series.''

Manager Kevin Cash talks a lot about the resiliency, moxie and determination of the undermanned group, and he felt it showed repeatedly over the last week. Reliever Sergio Romo, who was cast into the spotlight as their game "opener" on back-to-back days, said there was something else developing, too.

"I know we went back under (Sunday), but getting back to .500 baseball is a huge, huge step forward for this team, the progression of a lot of the young guys here and some of us older guys to establish ourselves as the veterans in this clubhouse,'' Romo said. "I think part of our struggles this year was just trying to find identity, and I think now we're starting to click a little bit more. We've gotten beat up, but we've also beat some dudes up. So it's pretty fun to watch this team just compete every day.

"Every day it seems to be a different guy. And these are the type of teams that come out on top at the end. Usually they go fearless, confident and knowing that it could be any one of us at any point. Definitely a fun team to watch if you ask me.''

Interesting, too.

Using a higher-leverage reliever such as Romo to begin the games Saturday and Sunday and tasked to get three-six outs was just the start of something as Cash said they will continue to employ that strategy when the matchups are conducive, though going forward likely not on back-to-back days.

Some hailed the move as revolutionary, MLB Network host Brian Kenny showing his approval by tweeting a video of the lunar landing. Others found it revolting, blasting the Rays for trying to be too analytical and too smart in changing traditional roles. Some just enjoyed the machinations, Rays TV analyst Brian Anderson noting on the air after Saturday's successful roll out, "the computers are high-fiving each other.''

Cash reiterated that their motives are genuine and basic, that it's what they feel gives them the best chance to win on days when they don't have one of their established starters scheduled.

The premise is for the starting reliever to face the top hitters in the oft-pivotal first inning, then allow the ensuing pitcher (or pitchers) to get deeper without the top of the opposing lineup flipping over for them for the oft-onerous third time.

"I don't know if it's that innovative or not,'' Cash said. "I'm glad it worked (Saturday), I'm intrigued to see how it's going to continue to work because I'm confident we're going to do it. It might not just be Sergio, it might be Jonny Venters. It depends. It gives us the flexibility to kind of match up with the opposing offense a little bit better when we can kind of insert a guy in there to get three-six outs.''

On Saturday, Romo got his three outs and rookie lefty Ryan Yarbrough took it from there, working into the eighth and the Rays won 5-3. On Sunday, Romo retired four of six batters, but successors Matt Andriese, Jose Alvarado and Anthony Banda were not sharp, and, with their hitters limited by Ohtani, they lost.

Obviously, you can't win 'em all. But from what the Rays showed this past week, even getting their most famous fan, Dick Vitale, back on board, they might end up winning more than we thought. One way or another.

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