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Rays set to discover if they are contenders … or pretenders

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The Tampa Bay Rays begin the second half of the season on Friday when they kick off a six-game road trip in the Pacific Time Zone. They hope to continue their momentum after winning 6 of their last 9 games heading into the all-star break, including taking three of four from the Boston Red Sox.

They begin the final two and a half months with a 47-43 record and tied with the New York Yankees for second place in the American League East and only three and a half games behind the division-leading Red Sox. The Rays are also tied with New York atop the Wild Card standings.

Several players had strong first halves, but the Rays cannot afford significant second half drop offs. Perhaps it will take some big numbers from veteran Evan Longoria and continued inspired play from the recently acquired Adeiny Hechavarria at shortstop.

Logan Morrison and Corey Dickerson had big first halves, but can their numbers stack up for a full season? If Longoria can have a Longoria-esque second half and the rest of the offense keeps scoring runs, the Rays have a good chance to reach the postseason.

Tampa Bay still leads the league in strikeouts, but are getting more key hits at the right time. Brad Miller’s huge 8th inning homer of Boston’s Joe Kelly on Sunday is a perfect example.

“Brad Miller’s had a long season to this point with injuries and probably not performing to the standard that he set last year, but wow, that was a pretty big hit, as big as any in his Rays’ career,” said Rays manager Kevin Cash. “It was an exciting, exciting win for us. It’s huge.”

On the mound, if the Rays can get through the sixth inning, they have an excellent chance to win a lot of games. Brad Boxberger, Tommy Hunter and Alex Colome represent a strong back end of the bullpen.

Tampa Bay leads the American League in saves with 30. Colome has 25 of those.

Chris Archer and Alex Cobb are having good seasons as starters, and Jake Odorizzi has ups and downs, but Tampa Bay is counting on a rookie every fifth day. Jake Faria has been sensational in his few starts since being called up, especially last Thursday when he outdueled All-Star starter Chris Sale of Boston in a 4-1 Rays win.

One month from now it should be clear whether they can actually contend for a postseason berth or be labeled as a pretender. They will finish July by playing 11 of the 17 remaining games on the road.

On Friday, they begin a three-game set in Anaheim against the 45-47 Los Angeles Angels followed by three in Oakland against the Athletics, the Western Division’s last-place team. Following 6 home games against the Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles, Tampa Bay embarks on a brutal 8-day stretch with four against the Yankees in New York followed by four more in Houston against the Astros, the league’s best team.

Following the Houston series, the Rays play 9 games at home beginning August 4. They will face the National League’s Milwaukee Brewers for three games, Boston for two and the Cleveland Indians for four. All three of those teams lead their respective divisions.

We are about to see what this team is made of.

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Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

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