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Rays back in contention, with a twist

MLB.com @feinsand

It's been a different kind of year for the Rays.

Following three consecutive sub-.500 seasons, Tampa Bay finds itself in the thick of the American League Wild Card race as the first half winds down, tied with the Twins just a half-game behind the Royals for the second spot.

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It's been a different kind of year for the Rays.

Following three consecutive sub-.500 seasons, Tampa Bay finds itself in the thick of the American League Wild Card race as the first half winds down, tied with the Twins just a half-game behind the Royals for the second spot.

View Full Game Coverage

The Rays are above water at 45-42, seeking their first winning record since Joe Maddon's 2013 club won 92 games and advanced to the AL Division Series with a Wild Card Game victory over the Indians.

But the Rays' record isn't the only thing separating this season from most others in St. Pete. The offense is hitting the heck out of the ball while their pitchers are getting hit, precisely the opposite of what Tampa Bay baseball has been about for most of the past decade.

Entering Friday, the Rays boasted one of the AL's most potent offenses, ranking fifth in the league in runs scored, second in home runs and third in OPS. The pitching staff, on the other hand, ranked sixth with a 4.19 ERA -- thanks largely to a bullpen tied for the second-most blown saves in the AL. The relievers' 4.47 ERA placed the unit 11th in the 15-team league.

The last time a Rays offense ranked in the top half of the league in runs scored was 2010, when Tampa Bay trailed only the Yankees and Red Sox. They've finished the season ranked 14th or 15th in each of the past three years, twice wasting top-five ERA rankings by the pitching staff.

"It is a bit different, in a sense," Rays general manager Erik Neander said. "That said, a lot of our personnel this year is similar to what we had last year. We're seeing guys like Corey Dickerson, Steven Souza Jr. and LoMo [Logan Morrison] -- guys that have been here for a year or two -- break out.

"The guys that have been established contributors for a long time like Longo [Evan Longoria] are doing their part. It's certainly nice to have the depth in the lineup and the amount of guys producing that are hitting for power, getting the big hit.

"Last year, we hit a lot of home runs and our defense was a little bit leaky. We're still working on ways to balance everything, but it's certainly nice to put a bunch of runs on the board and take a little stress off the other units from having to be at their best every day. Ultimately, we want to get each phase of the game in a spot where our offense currently is."

How can the Rays accomplish that goal? Tampa Bay has never been a club known to take on big contracts at the Trade Deadline, and its market size makes it difficult for the club to trade away blue-chip prospects that could be a cost-controlled part of its future in search of short-term help, so making a big splash before July 31 seems like a long shot.

Then again, after three losing seasons that resulted in a pair of fourth-place and one last-place finish, the idea of getting back to the postseason has to be somewhat intoxicating to the Rays' fan base -- and their front office.

"I think it's important to never take situations where you're in it competitively for granted," Neander said. "The way the standings are right now, we're definitely in the mix. You always have to balance; there's always a premium to adding immediate contributions to your Major League team, and that typically comes at a cost to the future of your organization beyond the current year.

"You want to do everything you can to take advantage of opportunities when you're most competitive, but you also want to be responsible to the organization in the bigger picture. That's a fine line to walk. We spend a lot of time discussing and debating, but at the end of the day, we'd always much rather be in that position than not."

Like many of their fellow contenders, the Rays will be seeking bullpen help in the coming weeks, though the prices for the available relievers are yet to be determined. While the top arms figure to bring back top prospects, there should be a wealth of bullpen guys available as July 31 grows closer.

But just as Tampa Bay made a surprise move two weeks ago with the trade for shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, the Rays' front office will remain open to any and all options that may present themselves during the next few weeks.

"I think it's pretty straightforward with the areas that we could potentially afford to upgrade the most," Neander said. "At the same time, if you go into this time of year with a very rigid approach, you might lose out on opportunities to make your club better in unforeseen ways. For us, the Hechavarria trade was one where Tim Beckham had done beyond a heck of a job for us at shortstop, but it was a situation where there was an opportunity to add an established player with an exceptional glove to our mix. If we're so locked in on only improving our club in one particular area, opportunities like that pass you by."

Three lost seasons have passed the Rays by. They're determined not to let it happen again.

Mark Feinsand, an executive reporter, originally joined MLB.com as a reporter in 2001.

Tampa Bay Rays