ST. PETERSBURG — Think of everywhere the Rays had been this season.
Dropping eight straight after a happy opener en route to a miserable 4-13 start. Missing star centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier for two months due to injury, then opening day starter Chris Archer for five-plus weeks. Employing only three and sometimes (like now) two starters, with relievers as one-inning-plus game openers and bullpen days on the regular, 13 pitchers starting games and 25 total overall to navigate a staggering string of injuries. Losing eight straight for a second time, plus a five-game skid. Playing the toughest schedule, between travel and quality of opponents, in the league. Coming up one run short a majors-most 20 times. And fielding a squad from the start of relatively little renown.
And look where they are now after beating the Astros 5-2 Saturday, one game into the second half of their schedule and back, somehow, to .500, at 41-41.
"We definitely have had a lot of adversity,'' centerfielder Kiermaier said. "Me going down. Archer. Two-man rotation with all these bullpen days. It hasn't been quite like how you want to draw it up.
"But at the same time, you've got to go out and try to win ball games, whatever you can. And we're doing it more different than any other team in baseball.''
The Rays were last at .500 on June 1 at 28-28, losing for the second time in what would be their second eight-game losing streak of the season. And they were six games under at 34-40 after going 2-7 in New York and Houston to start a seemingly tortuous 16-game stretch against the Yankees, Astros and Nationals.
Then they came home and ripped off their best stretch of the season, sweeping three from the Yankees, two from the Nats and taking two of the first three from the world champion Astros to get to 41-41, the third time (since 1-1) they got to .500 (and never more than two games over).
"This is probably more important than any of them, simply with the teams we've been playing to get there,'' manager Kevin Cash said. "For the guys to come back home and play this well at home, they're playing well. It goes all around our pitching. We're getting really good pitching. I hear about it, I like to talk about it every day. The defense has been outstanding. And the hitting, to do that against some really good pitchers, has been fun.''
Saturday was a showcase.
Ryne Stanek opened well again, Vidal Nuno delivered 4⅔ strong innings, and the bullpen brigade of Jose Alvarado, Chaz Roe and Sergio Romo finished, grounding the Astros on five hits and two runs, and just five for the first three games of the series.
Infielder Joey Wendle looked every bit like an outfielder making a running and sliding catch in left, then Kiermaier later did his best Wendle with another highlight grab in center, and Matt Duffy made a dazzling play at third.
All-Star and trade candidate Wilson Ramos provided most of the offense with a pair of two-run, bases-loaded hits as the Rays beat the highest of Houston's aces, scoring five in the first two innings versus Justin Verlander, who said the Rays were more lucky than good since there were "only three hard-hit balls," by Duffy.
"They have a pretty good rotation, and Verlander is a really good pitcher, so if you have a chance to take advantage of him, we have to do it,'' Ramos said. "And that's what we did (Saturday).''
As much as the Rays have shuffled their lineup and worked on their defense, the secret to their success has been pitching. It's the product of their innovative plans, using relievers to get the first three-six outs and scheduling bullpen days, and the pitchers not only embracing it but excelling.
They have had the best ERA in the majors (2.75) since launching the opener plan May 19 and have been even better recently, pitching to a 1.32 ERA in the first eight games of the homestand and allowing two or fewer runs in five straight games, matching the franchise best.
"The way these guys have been throwing, we're a tough team to beat right now,'' Kiermaier said. "We really are.''
Cash raves about 'the resiliency,'' noting how the players didn't get down over the terrible start and maintained the requisite effort and energy. The injuries, with just-anointed starter Wilmer Font the latest to go down, have been "awful … the worst thing about it.'' And as for losing so many one-run games, with a 15-20 mark, Cash said the onus is on them to turn it around given they are built to play that way, such as realizing early game mistakes are just as costly as late.
Even with all the issues and injuries and roster shuffling, there seems to be a growing confidence in the clubhouse, which pays off, if not this year, then in the future.
"My favorite thing is to say we're scrappy,'' starter Blake Snell said. "I think we're always in it. … We all like each other a lot, so it's fun to play, it's fun to watch everyone succeed. … And I feel like everyone believes we've been getting better.''
But .500 82 games in? If you're surprised given all they've gone through, you're not alone.
"I'm surprised,'' Kiermaier said, "but at the same time I'm not because I know what this team is capable of … and it's a lot of fun to be a part of.''
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays.