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Rays’ unknown pitching staff helps the team rule AL East

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There are mysteries in life.

Easter Island. The Sphinx. JFK.

And how in the world are these Tampa Bay Rays on top of the American League East?

A year ago, they were 16 games below .500. This year, they are nine above. They do not hit very well. No one has heard of their starting pitchers. The manager just got here.

Nate Karns? Erasmo Ramirez?

Mike Andriese? Alex Colome?

That’s the rotation? That’s what’s keeping this team atop the American League East?

For crying out loud, Andriese had never won a major league game before this year. Karns had won three. Colome had won three. Ramirez was the big winner with seven whole victories, although he had 12 losses and a 4.62 era.

This is how the Rays are doing it? With smoke, mirrors and a bunch of guys who seem to be leftovers from one of Hal McRae’s old staffs. With this arm from this AAA club and that one from that one? With four- and five-inning starts and a lot of help from the bullpen? Can you imagine the other batters walking back toward the dugout wondering who these guys are?

This may be pitching coach Jim Hickey‘s finest achievent, and as Rays’ manager Kevin Cash was pointing out Monday, there is a reason they call Hickey the Sorcerer. We aren’t talking about one surprise starter here, mind you. We’re talking about replacing Alex Cobb and Jake Odorizzi and Matt Moore and Drew Smyly all at once.

What we’re talking about, folks, is first place.

“That’s the beauty of baseball,” centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “These are ‘no-names.’ There probably aren’t a lot of people in baseball who know these guys, but we know them. Andriese. Ramirez. Colume. All these guys have stepped up. They’re the reason were on top of the AL East.”

But how?

Andriese has pitched into the sixth inning on only one of his starts. After nine appearances, Ramirez had an era of 8.38. Colome was known more for his 50-game suspension than for his mound achievements.

But all of them seem to be settling in. And the Rays are now nine games above .500; this time last year, they were 16 below.

“I think that’s a huge part of why we’ve played so well,” Cash said. “We’ve asked some young pitchers to fill a void, and they’ve been exceptional. Everyone has had their hiccups, but they’ve made their adjustments.”

Oh, every staff needs an anchor. This one has Chris Archer, who has been superb. But even Archer acknowledges how important the rest of the cast has been.

“It’s a great story,” Archer said. “It speaks of our player development and of our scouting. We got some players in trades who our scouts had seen in the minor leagues.”

Can it sustain itself? Perhaps it won’t have to. Moore is getting closer to returning to the order; he threw 92 pitches in a rehab assignment Sunday. Odorizzi might not be far away. He threw a rehab assignment Monday. Smyly seems further away.

That’s OK, though. This team still has crazy glue and a Swiss Army knife.

And an anchor named Erasmo.

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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