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Surging Rays expect to make second-half run

After overcoming slow start, club vies to be in position to win American League East

ST. PETERSBURG -- A lot went wrong for the Rays in the first half. Nevertheless, the team is poised to make a nice second-half run after closing the first half on a roll.

The Rays left Spring Training with the look of a team ready to scrap for runs, play stellar defense and dominate with their pitching. Some of that forecast came to fruition, while other parts only hinted at what might be.

"We're a better offensive club and a better defensive club," manager Joe Maddon said. "Starting pitching is starting to come around like it had. And the bullpen has been a little sporadic, but for the most part, it's been good.

Tampa Bay's pitching was the team's biggest surprise, both good and bad, in the first half. Headlining those surprises/disappointments have been David Price and Fernando Rodney.

After claiming the 2012 American League Cy Young Award, Price got off to a slow start and eventually went on the disabled list with a strained left triceps.

Rodney, who compiled a historic season as the Rays' closer in 2012, got out of the gate slowly, blowing save opportunities that would never have been in question last season.

On the bright side for Tampa Bay, the outlook for the second half looks positive, beginning with Price's return to the rotation.

After being gone for a prolonged period, Price, who is normally a 200-innings horse, should be fresher than normal late in the season. And in the three starts he's made since returning from the DL, he's never pitched better. Rodney also seems to be inching toward a form that more closely resembles the 2012 model, which everybody knew would be difficult to replicate.

First-half awards
MVP: Evan Longoria Healthy for the most part, the Rays' offense is totally different with Longoria in it.
Cy Young: Matt Moore Despite occasional struggles with his command, Moore has gotten results in the first half.
Rookie: Wil Myers Didn't join the team until late in the first half, but what a splash he has made.
Top reliever: Joel Peralta Always seems to be on the mound to get the tough outs.

Offensively, the Rays should be more potent in the second half due to the arrival of Wil Myers, who gives the team another power bat and a presence to protect Evan Longoria in the batting order.

Matt Moore got off to a fast start, survived a mild slump and got back on track to post the best first half of any of the team's starters en route to becoming a first-time All-Star. What should be scary to opposing teams is the fact Moore has not yet reached his full potential, which bodes well for Tampa Bay's chances.

Another plus for the team comes in the chemistry of this year's crew.

"The team, as a group, has been one of the tighter-knit teams I've been a part of, and one of the most fun teams I've been a part of," Longoria said. "And it seems like we are more together on a personal level than we ever have been. We've had some great teams here and I've had a lot of close relationships with a lot of guys. But overall, I feel like we've done a great job as a group, and I'm excited to see how it goes in the second half.

"But we haven't nailed the pitching down like we did last year. The primary differences from this year to last year … [is we're] much more consistent offensively and defensively on the field. And when we get that pitching tied in like we know we can, it can be a very, very fun second half."

Tampa Bay has been a far superior defensive club compared to the 2012 model, which can be attributed largely to a revamped infield, along with a healthy Longoria.

James Loney took over at first base and has been every bit as good defensively as a long line of slick-fielding Rays first basemen -- Travis Lee, Carlos Pena and Casey Kotchman. In addition to Loney, Yunel Escobar joined the team, giving Tampa Bay its best shortstop since Jason Bartlett played the position.

While the team has effectively scrapped for runs using an attack that Maddon has referred to as "swarming" -- and striking out far less than in recent years -- the group also has produced a surprising amount of power. Having Longoria return to the everyday lineup has helped a lot, but he has been joined by Matt Joyce, Loney, Kelly Johnson and Luke Scott, of late, in helping the Rays in the power department.

Players to watch in second half
David Price He could easily lead a second-half charge after missing much of the first half.
Ben Zobrist Look for him to get really hot at some point.
Alex Cobb Was the most consistent starter before a line drive put him on the shelf with a concussion.

A huge litmus test will take place to start the second half, when Tampa Bay goes on the road to face Toronto, Boston and New York for a 10-game stretch.

"This division, it's how this thing works," Maddon said. "It's like that. It's always going to be like that. We embrace it. We have to do better against the East. We are under .500 against the [AL] East right now.

"If we come out of the break, hold our own, get this thing rolling again in the right direction, we can make a lot of noise in the second half."

The Rays expect to be in the hunt until the end and don't anticipate anybody running away with the division.

"Really, it's going to come down to the last month of the season, in my opinion," Longoria said. "We're going to be within five games, if not at the top of this division at any given point throughout the course of the [remainder of the season]. In my opinion, it doesn't really matter where we are right now, as long as we're where we need to be on the last day of the season. The division has really shaped up kind of like everybody predicted it to."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for
Read More: Tampa Bay Rays, Evan Longoria, David Price, Matt Moore