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Rays second half outlook: Get back to having fun

After finishing just two games below .500 in Kevin Cash’s first year as manager, the Tampa Bay Rays were looking to take the next step in 2016 and get themselves back into contention for their first playoff birth since 2013 – their last winning season. Fast forward a few months into the new season and well, things haven’t gone quite as planned in Cash’s sophomore season.

At 34-54, the Rays are currently 17.5 games back of the first place Orioles in the AL East and 15.5 back of the last Wild Card in the American League. Safe to say – post season chances are grim. But let’s try to focus on what could become of this team as the second half begins on Friday as those same Orioles come to Tropicana Field for a three-game, weekend series that includes the return of Gold-Glove outfielder, Kevin Kiermaier, in Friday night’s opener.

Baltimore will come to town this weekend 4-6 in their last 10 games while the Rays have lost six in a row and hold a dismal 1-9 record in the month of July. With both teams struggling of late, one will need to use the other to snap out of their slump and get back on the winning track – but for two totally different reasons. The Orioles are hearing the Red Sox footsteps as they hold a slim two-game lead in the division while the Rays are hoping they can finish the season out of last place for the ninth year in a row (2007 was the last time Tampa Bay was in last place in the East).

Following the Baltimore series, the Rays head out west with stops in Colorado for three against the sub-.500 Rockies and California to face the struggling Athletics and second-place Dodgers. A winning road trip, especially out west, would be a huge momentum swing for this team. Cash has said the best thing they can do is win series. No one is expecting the Rays to go on a 10-game winning streak (thought it’d be nice) but fans absolutely can, and should, expect them to start putting up a better showing against any team in front of them. August has the Rays at home for 17 of their 29 games with more chances to start making up some ground in front of the home crowd. The bad news? Of their 29 games in August, only six of those games are against teams under .500 (Twins/Padres).

The best news of the second half, however, is the return of pitcher Alex Cobb from Tommy John surgery. Cobb is expected back in early August and is making his second rehab start Wednesday night in Port Charlotte. Steve Pearce is expected to have his bat back in the lineup at some point over the next month, as well. By the time Cobb comes back, the rotation could look a bit different as the rumors of the Rays moving a starter at the trade deadline are heating up with Jake Odorizzi’s name being tossed around a bit. The Marlins and Rangers have been rumored to be interested in the righty. It’s pretty safe to say this team will be sellers this season and it’s anyone’s guess who’s safe and who could be on the trade block.

No matter how the trade deadline pans out, the Rays have plenty of areas that absolutely must iron out if they have any shot at getting back to respectability before season’s end. It starts with Kevin Cash. His trust in his starters and better management of the bullpen need to improve. The offense has been fine. The complete collapse of what was supposed to be a top staff in baseball has been what’s killed this team. Matt Moore is starting to get back to his old self having pitched at least six innings in seven straight games and a solid 2.84 ERA in his two July starts. Blake Snell is having a respectable rookie campaign so far. The rest of the rotation hasn’t shown many bright spots of late so the return of Cobb can’t come soon enough. Matt Andriese, who started the year 6-0 in the rotation, has been very reliable out of the bullpen and could possibly see more starts in the second half depending on who gets dealt come July 31st.

Look for plenty of call ups in September as the Rays need to see what they’re future looks like at the big league level. 3B Richie Shaffer will no doubt be up as well as the return of OF Mikie Mahtook (DL) and UTIL Taylor Motter (Durham). Other prospects fans could expect to see and hopefully prove they’re on the brink of sticking around are SS Daniel Robertson, OF Dayron Varona, and pitchers Jacob Faria, Taylor Guerrieri, and Eddie Gamboa.

The frustrations have boiled over for the Rays fan base and understandably so. While, of course, the manager will be the first one dodging the finger pointing, it does not all fall on him. Coaches coach, players play, and everyone needs to accept responsibility for this historic slump. Can the Rays work their second-half magic that saw them surge into the playoffs in seasons past? While it’s highly unlikely they’ll make the post-season this year, they can sure make it a fun finish and give these fans, many of which are hanging on by a thread, something to be hopeful about.

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