ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays had a big weekend in Cleveland, winning three of four games against the Indians and filling their biggest need by acquiring right-handed slugger Nelson Cruz from the Twins.
This week could be even bigger.
After Monday’s off-day, the Rays will begin a nine-game homestand Tuesday that includes series against the American League East-rival Yankees and Red Sox. The Trade Deadline is Friday, meaning there will be a flurry of activity in the days and hours leading up to 4 p.m. ET.
The Rays are in a good place at the outset of this stretch. They’re 60-40 after 100 games, on pace for a 97-65 mark that would tie the 2008 club’s franchise record for most wins in a season. They have a comfortable 4 1/2-game edge over the A’s for the first American League Wild Card spot and a six-game advantage over the Mariners, who will visit Tropicana Field next week. The Rays’ front office beat the rush on Trade Deadline deals by acquiring Cruz early, with the added benefit of having him in the fold for a full week before the Deadline.
So, what might this huge homestand have in store?
The Rays will host the Yankees for three games this week and the Red Sox this weekend, culminating in a Sunday night matchup against Boston -- Tampa Bay’s first appearance on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball since July 6, 2014.
They’re second in the AL East, eight games ahead of the Yankees and just one game behind the Red Sox. As good as the Rays have been -- 7-3 since the All-Star break, 13-4 since July 4, 41-21 since May 13 -- they still can’t supplant the first-place Red Sox.
Having six head-to-head matchups this week seems like an ideal opportunity for Tampa Bay to keep New York at bay and gain ground over Boston, especially as the AL East rivals’ front offices maneuver to improve their clubs leading up to Friday’s Deadline.
“Obviously two big series coming up. We’re excited for that,” said left-hander Shane McClanahan, who will start Tuesday night. “Why you play the game is for these meaningful series.”
General manager Erik Neander showed the Rays’ commitment to bolstering the defending AL champions’ roster by sending right-handers Joe Ryan and Drew Strotman, two near-ready pitching prospects, to the Twins for Cruz. That solidified Tampa Bay’s lineup, provided a key bat against the kind of left-handed pitchers who have given the Rays trouble this season and added a highly respected veteran presence to the clubhouse.
“I know the guys are working really hard and reaching out to teams, and we have teams reaching out to us,” manager Kevin Cash said Saturday. “The way it goes this last five, six days, week, it’s pretty consistent. It goes quiet for a little bit, then all of a sudden, the text messaging and phone calls come out of nowhere.
“With Erik and our group’s moves already, they’re going to do everything they can to better our club. And if opportunities arise, they’ll put their heads together and come up with a really good decision.”
It might seem odd that the Rays dealt away Rich Hill to the Mets only to pursue another starter, but Neander said the Rays will be open-minded if there’s a way to upgrade their rotation. The challenge is finding the right deal for an obvious improvement over what they have -- not just on the current roster, but on the horizon.
Chris Archer has been impressive during his Minor League rehab assignment. Shane Baz is with Team USA in Tokyo, but he could be ready to debut next month. And ace Tyler Glasnow continues to recover, holding out hope for a September return.
Former Ray Charlie Morton would seem like an ideal fit if -- and it’s a big if -- the Braves decide to make him available. The Rangers’ Kyle Gibson, who has a 2.87 ERA in 19 starts, could also be an intriguing target; he certainly looked good holding Tampa Bay to two runs (one earned) on nine hits and two walks over 12 1/3 innings in two starts, both wins, this season.
The Rays tend to get creative to get what they want, so why should we expect anything different this time?
Cruz joined the Rays on the road, so Tuesday will be his home debut. The Rays are ready to celebrate the moment, offering giveaway Cruz T-shirts on Friday and a $23 ticket special (for his jersey number) for Lower Reserved and GTE Financial Party Deck seats on Sunday night.
The Rays made a bunch of other moves in Cleveland, some forced by injuries and some by choice. Top prospect Wander Franco is now officially the starting shortstop, for instance, with Taylor Walls having been optioned to Triple-A Durham. And the Rays are sticking to their commitment to Luis Patiño, giving him a spot in their rotation and a chance to prove himself. Next up for the 21-year-old righty? A duel with Gerrit Cole on Thursday afternoon.
It’s also worth noting that, by filling Hill’s spot with a bullpen game Friday rather than bumping everyone up a day, the Rays kept McClanahan in line to pitch Tuesday against the Yankees and again Sunday night against the Red Sox. The lefty has earned those tough assignments over the past month, recording a 3.08 ERA with 32 strikeouts in 26 1/3 innings while holding opponents to a .565 OPS in his past five outings.
What the Rays have done this season is impressive without qualifying it in any way. But it’s even more remarkable when you consider that they’ve been battling injuries throughout, with 14 players -- including Glasnow and high-leverage reliever Nick Anderson -- currently on the injured list.
So, this week presents much to monitor on the health front.
Is outfielder Manuel Margot ready to return Tuesday, as expected, and how will that affect their outfield rotation? How will Archer’s next Triple-A rehab start go on Tuesday, and how close is he to pitching in the Majors? Is Anderson ready to pitch for Triple-A Durham after working another scoreless inning for the Rookie-level Florida Complex League Rays on Monday? What kind of progress are they seeing from Glasnow and relievers J.P. Feyereisen, Collin McHugh and Ryan Thompson, among others?
This might seem like an issue of lesser importance in the present, but it’s critical for the Rays in the long run: Sunday is the deadline to sign players selected in this year’s MLB Draft, and they appear to be in excellent position with that key date approaching.
The Rays signed sixth-round lefty Mason Montgomery from Texas Tech on Saturday, so they have now agreed to terms with 18 of their 21 picks. So far, Tampa Bay has only handed out one signing bonus above the recommended slot value, and that went to 12th-round right-hander Jonny Cuevas, who received $197,500 rather than the standard $125,000.
The Rays’ three unsigned selections as of Monday morning were third-round infielder Ryan Spikes, eighth-round left-hander Patrick Wicklander and 16th-round righty Ian Leatherman.