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Despite injuries, Rays hold onto first in AL East

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There are days, when the bullpen is dazzling and the defense is on, when you look at them and nod. Those are the days of great declarations. Those are the days you look at the Tampa Bay Rays and nod.

On such days, you think. “This! This is a first-place team!”

Then are days such as Sunday, when hitting is cold and the pitching is frayed, when you look at them and shrug. Those are the days of great exasperation. Those are the days you look at the Rays and shrug.

On such days, you think “This? This is a first-place team?”

The surprising Rays, held together by duct tape and spackle, somehow continue to rule the American League East. Even on a day like this, when they did not hit particularly well, and they did not field as well as normal, and they found a way to lose a 5-0 decision to the Oakland A’s, the worst team in the American League, the Rays maintained a game and a half lead. Even when they lose, it seems, they cannot lose.

In other words, Sunday’s game more or less demonstrated just how surprising it is that this team has taken over first place. And yes, manager Kevin Cash said, his team is capable of maintaining its lead.

“I think it shows that we’re getting more players who are maturing on a daily basis.” Cash said. “ I think you have to look at the positives and say ‘this guy is better with each outing, this guy is better with each at bat. He’s getting more knowledge about what he’s capable of. What the leagues about.’That’s where we find that mix.”

How stunning is it that this team is first?

The Rays have taken over first place despite sending 14 players to the disabled list for 15 stints, most in the major leagues. No other team in the division has more than 11.

The Rays are in first despite three combined starts from Alex Cobb, Matt Moore and Drew Smyly.

They have used four rookies for 17 starts, both most in the majors. (Rays rookies are a combied 9-4 with three saves and a 3.83 era)

They have used 40 players and 13 rookies, both most in the majors.

They have used 16 relievers (one more than all of 2014).

They are only 2-for-16 in replay challenges.

They are in first place despite trading nine players from their 2014 season-ending roster, including former all-stars Ben Zobrist and Matt Joyce and two rookie of the year winners (Jeremy Hellickson and Wil Myers).

They have yielded two runs or less 22 times this season in 44 games.

What it has done is made for a nice little start by a team you might have expected to do this at the AAA level. For the most part, the Rays have been solid on defense and spectacular in the bullpen. They lead the league with 146.2 innings pitched and 19 saves. Since April 19, the Rays are second in the majors with a 1.86 era and a .187 batting average.

“I think everybody ‘s playing pretty well,” pitcher Chris Archer said. “We’ve had contributions from (Logan) Forsyth, who has been huge. Joey Butler. I know Steven Souza’s average isn’t that great, but his defense has been great and he’s hit some clutch home runs. So everybody is doing their part.”

But can the Rays sustain this?

“I think so,” Archer said. “We do have a couple of pieces that will be healthy, like (John) Jaso, which will boost our lineup. Des (Desmond Jennings). He’s a catylist. I don’t think it’s a fluke what our pitching staff is doing as a whole. That’s what is going to drive us. Our defense is great. I think we’re playing exciting baseball, the hit and run, the double steal. We have had some power. We have guys with 4-5 home runs. It’s not like one guy has 12. Every night it’s someone new. That’s what championship teams do.”

Of course, we are just past one-fourth of the season. The Rays have a lot more winning to do.

For now, however, they are in first place.

Who would have thought it?

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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