Nearly two weeks ago, the Tampa Bay Rays—at .500 and sitting in fourth in the AL East—were getting nervous. Now, a ten-game Rays winning streak has Tampa Bay fans riding high as the Rays are tied for first in the AL East with the Red Sox.
A Precarious Situation
On May 13th, the Rays were in trouble. They were heading into the final game of their series against the New York Yankees, having already dropped the first two and just hoping to avoid the sweep. After sweeping the Angels the week before in a four-game series, they were now facing their second straight series loss and were mired in fourth place in the AL East with a .500 record. For the defending AL Pennant winners, it felt insufficient.
Things just hadn’t been going as they had expected following their World Series appearance just a half year previous. Their pitching was keeping them in games, though there was a significant drop in efficacy once their starters left the game. Tyler Glasnow—pitching like a bonafide ace—was the lone bright spot. Their rotation signings of Rich Hill, Michael Wacha, and Chris Archer were going okay but hadn’t paid off quite enough. Closer Nick Anderson‘s Spring Training injury had tossed a significant wrench into their bullpen plans.
Their offense ranked in the bottom half of the league in most metrics. Yoshi Tsutsugo (a two-year, $12 million gamble) had just been designated for assignment following his offensive struggles. The Rays were banking on Ji-Man Choi, set to return from a rehab assignment, to fill in at first base. Their middle infield, anchored by Brandon Lowe and Willy Adames who had been dynamite offensively the previous season, was middling. Randy Arozarena hadn’t been able to recapture the magic from the 2020 postseason. Heck, the two best offensive players on the team were both catchers in the form of Mike Zunino and Francisco Mejía.
Between the surging Red Sox at the top of the division, the New York Yankees starting to play like their payroll, and the Toronto Blue Jays entering the start of their contention window, there were panicked (and overreacting) whispers that it was time to tear it down and look to the future. After all, there was plenty to look forward to, including baseball’s #1 prospect in Wander Franco.
Turning It Around: A Dominant Rays Winning Streak
But it wasn’t even halfway through May and Tampa Bay—while in fourth place of a tough division—was still plenty competitive at .500. Those preaching patience were soon rewarded as the Rays avoided the sweep by taking the final game against the Yankees, getting back on track with two sweeps of their own, first against the other New York team, the Mets, then beating up on the Orioles in Camden Yards.
While winning seven straight was certainly impressive, the Mets had been devastated by injuries and the Orioles were, well, the Orioles. Heading into the weekend, Tampa Bay was set up with their biggest test as they tried to keep the Rays winning streak alive: the divisional matchup against the resurgent Toronto Blue Jays.
The sweep hasn’t yet been confirmed (game four of the series is scheduled for this afternoon), but the Rays edged out the Jays by two runs in each of the three games during the weekend to bump the Rays winning streak into double digits at 10. Regardless of how the series finale turns out this afternoon, Tampa Bay has turned things around and, along with the Red Sox, hold the best record not just in the AL East but in the entire American League.
A Closer Look
So what brought about this dominant Rays winning streak? The answer is actually pretty simple. Hitting the baseball.
The ten-game stretch catapulted Tampa Bay from the bottom half into the top tier of offenses in MLB, ranking right around 5th by most metrics like fWAR, runs scored, and wRC+. In just ten games, the Rays have scored a whopping 81 runs (that’s averaging over eight runs a game!) in large part due to their 23 home runs, while allowing just 35 runs from their opponents.
It was a team effort—thirteen Rays hit above 100 wRC+ during the streak. Even Taylor Walls, called up Saturday following the Willy Adames trade, has immediately contributed, smacking two doubles en route to a 3-for-8 start over his first two MLB games. Ji-Man Choi has also provided a huge offensive boost for Tampa Bay since returning from injury, hitting safely in all seven games back. Mike Zunino and Joey Wendle have remained offensive powerhouses for the Rays, which—while they likely can’t sustain it long-term—has been a huge part in keeping them in a position to win. Austin Meadows and Brandon Lowe are looking like the players we all expected heading into the 2021 season.
But the biggest piece by far has been 2021 postseason darling Randy Arozarena. Over the ten-game Rays winning streak, Arozarena has been dominant, slashing .318/.412/.636 while smacking four home runs, leading the team in runs and RBI, and even stealing a base for good measure. Perhaps most importantly, he’s struck out fewer times than he walked. While there isn’t a huge major-league sample to draw from, Arozarena has been striking out at or above league average since reaching the major leagues—any significant development in his plate discipline would be an enormous boost to Arozarena’s offensive profile. While it’ll be hard to top his 2020 postseason performance, Arozarena has been plenty productive of late.
Looking Past the Rays Winning Streak: What’s Next?
Whether their unbeaten stretch ends this afternoon or if the Rays winning streak continues with a sweep over the Blue Jays, Tampa Bay has now established itself as ready to compete in the brawling AL East. Their pitching has finally gotten some relief in the form of run support, vitally important for a team with such a fragile rotation. While scoring more than eight runs a game isn’t sustainable, we know their offense had been underperforming—if their offense just settles into a middle ground between the start of the season and the last two weeks, their pitching should be strong enough to keep them in any games.
It’s early, of course, but the Rays have the core pieces to make a serious attempt at running it back to the World Series. However, while most teams would likely be looking to make a big splash before the trade deadline, the notoriously stingy Rays are likely to rely on the pieces they already have to sustain success. They also have several big names waiting in the wings in the minors who will be looking for their first crack at the majors—prospects like Vidal Bruján and Wander Franco are capable of making an immediate impact when they’re inevitably called up later this season. For now, though, the Rays are taking it one game at a time and looking to extend their streak with a series sweep this afternoon against Toronto.
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