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As second half starts, can the Rays catch New York in AL East?

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The starting pitching has been shredded by injury. The hitting has been held ineffective by a lack of ability. They have shown the questionable talent of going into a prolonged slump.

The general manager is new. The manager is new. Most of the players just got here.

Ask yourself then: As the Tampa Bay Rays prepare to begin the second half of their schedule, do they have what it takes to catch the New York Yankees?

Here at the break, they are one game above .500, and they are 3 ½ games behind New York. All in all, it isn’t a terrible position to be in. Reinforcements are coming. Drew Smyly. Desmond Jennings.

Still, you have to ask. Can they remain in contention until the games get interesting?

It will be a scramble. On the other hand, hasn’t most of this season been a scramble? The Rays have attacked baseball with a new formula, trying to squeeze five innings out of their starting pitcher (instead of the traditional seven) and then leaning on its bullpen.

Except for one dip – when the team went 3-15 just before the all-star break, it has worked. Oh, the Rays still are tied for the worst batting average they have ever had (amazing, isn’t it, when you think of all the lineups trotted out by Larry Rothschild and Hal McCrae during the forgettable years). Most of the familiar faces – David Price, Ben Zobrist, Matt Joyce, Joe Maddon – work somewhere else now.

The thing is, the Yankees have a few more power bats, but they don’t exactly have the look of a team for the ages, either. There are nights it probably amazes the Yankees that they are in first place, too.

So what has to happen during this second half?

Well, start with the best player. Chris Archer was the only Ray to get into the recent All-Star game. But the Rays have lost his last three starts, and in his last one, he gave up a season-worst nine earned runs in six innings. The Rays need him to find some freshness in his arm and to get on another streak where fans are counting his strikeouts.

There is Brad Boxberger, who was selected to the All-Star team (although he didn’t pitch). Boxberger closed out his first half with saves in three straight games against Houston. But he had allowed walk-off victories in the two games before that. More than anyone, he has to prove that the Rays’ bullpen is still the strength of this team.

There are other trouble spots. It would be nice if Evan Longoria (nine home runs) had his power return. Steven Souza Jr. has had nice power, but he has to hit above .210. Rene Rivera has done a nice job defensively, but shouldn’t he hit north of .185?

And so it goes. Joey Butler isn’t hitting what he was. Asdrubal Cabrera is still at .223.

In other words, the Rays need to steal a few. They need to leave the field at night with the other team wondering how the runs added up in Tampa Bay’s favor.

Along the way, it wouldn’t hurt if manager Kevin Cash could win a few more challenges.

Seventy-one games to go.

And here they are, starting the chase.

Gary Shelton is one of the most recognized and honored sportswriters in the history of the state. He has won the APSE's national columnist of the year twice and finished in the top 10 eight times. He was named the Florida Sportswriter of the Year six times. Gary joined SaintPetersBlog in the spring, helping to bring a sports presence to the website. Over his time in sports writing, Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls, 10 Olympics, Final Fours, Masters, Wimbledons and college national championships. He was there when the Bucs won a Super Bowl, when the Lightning won a Stanley Cup and when the Rays went to a World Series. He has seen Florida, FSU and Miami all win national championships, and he covered Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden and Don Shula along the way. He and his wife Janet have four children: Eric, Kevin, K.C. and Tori. To contact, visit garysheltonsports@gmail.com.

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