The 2009 season for the Tampa Bay Rays has been quite a roller coaster. The Rays got off to a slow start in April and have been playing catch up ever since. As it stands at the break they're 6 1/2 games behind the Boston Red Sox in the American League East. They're 3 1/2 games behind the New York Yankees in the Wild Card race.
The 2nd half starts with the Rays on the outside looking in. Now, we have to see if they can truly make a run and compete with Boston and New York the rest of the way. The 2nd half starts off with a tough road trip followed by some cooking against the Yankees and Boston. We'll see real quickly if this team's going to keep pace and make it a real exciting 2nd half of 2009.
Here are 10 Things I want to see in the 2nd Half:
1. The Return of the Kazmanian Devil. The Rays starters seemed to have suffered from the hangover Joe Maddon and Jim Hickey were concerned about following last year's World Series run. This was especially true for Andy Sonnanstine and Scott Kazmir. Now, at the half-way point, Sonnanstine's throwing for Durham and Kazmir is fresh off the disabled list. His last couple of starts looked promising. Now, for the Rays to have a successful 2nd half, Kazmir needs to buckle down and become the Kazmanian Devil from 2007. The Rays could truly ride him right into the post season.
2. Focused concentration. Last year, the Rays defense was a shining example of intense focused concentration. It was an area of focus and it showed every day on the field. This year, it hasn't been quite as tight and I blame concentration. I think the players let the World Series get to their head a little bit and aren't concentrating as much on the little things. They can't just show up and win. They have to play hard every day. As the Oakland A's and Cleveland Indians showed them, nobody is going to roll over. Everybody wants to prove themselves against the defending AL Champions. Take nobody lightly and come to play every night.
3. Play every one like you're playing your division foes. This goes along a little with the concentration problems. But, the Rays really need to focus when they're playing teams outside of the division. The AL Central and the AL West have been giving them fits all year. It seems as though the Rays get extra juiced to face the Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Yankees... but, when it comes to the rest of the teams they just go through the motions. They have 6 games against the Royals and 4 games against the White Sox early in the 2nd half. That would be the perfect opportunity to send a message that nobody's safe against the Rays.
4. King David gets going. At some point, David Price is going to turn the corner and become the pitcher we all expect him to be. After getting called up to the team, he's faced his share of struggles. Hopefully, he's turning the corner to be the dominating pitcher we expect him to be. The quicker King David is anointed, the better that makes the Rays in their race to catch the Red Sox.
5. The Vicious Circle line-up, redeux. Early in the season, Joe Maddon talked about his vicious circle line-up that started with B.J. Upton and Carl Crawford then ended with Akinori Iwamura and Jason Bartlett. That lineup has changed drastically since then because of injuries and slumps. The Rays need to get their line-up hitting on on cylinders in order to battle the AL East. That means more production out of Pat Burrell and Dionar Navarro, the two weaker links in the circle. Pat the Bat has shown some pop lately and Navarro seems to be getting some clutch hits now. If they can all get going at the same time, this team will be real tough to beat.
6. Longo, straight through. For a 23-year-old, our man Longo is really having trouble staying healthy. First, he missed time with the hamstring injury and now a mysterious infection derailed his All-Star start. No matter what, the Rays need Longo's bat to keep the offense going. Carlos Pena seems to do much better with Longo hitting. And if Longo and Ben Zobrist are hitting, Pena is almost assured the home run title in the American League.
7. Bullpen, bullpen, bullpen. It seemed to take 2 months, but the Rays bullpen finally settled down in June and July. After a little shuffling, the roles seemed to be more defined and the bullpen is able to get the outs they need. There are going to be some tight games in the 2nd half and it's up to these guys to get the outs. J.P. Howell is turning into quite the unnamed closer in the pen and could get himself a permanent job with a good 2nd half.
8. Win some on the road. The Rays are sporting a real nice record at the Trop, but they need to start getting some more wins on the road. They're 8 games below .500 on the road. If they were at .500 on the road right now, they'd be in 1st place in the AL East. The upcoming 10 game road trip in July would be the perfect opportunity to make up some ground on the battle against the road.
9. Have fun. Last year (except maybe the Cleveland series going into the All Star break), the Rays seemed to have fun every night. Even if they lost, they didn't hang their heads. They just came back the next day and knocked the other team around. This year, they seem to press more often. Maybe it's the expectations. Maybe it's that first taste of success. Maybe they lost some of the fun locker room guys. No matter what it is, the Rays have to find again. They have to show they are "one team" again.
10. Beat Boston. Beat New York. Despite every thing else, it's probably going to come down to head-to-head versus these teams. The Rays have had some good success against Boston dating back to last year. They need to keep that rolling when they face off again in the 2nd half. As for the Yankees, the Rays seem to be Jeckyl and Hyde. We need to see a lot more Jeckyl and a lot less Hyde the rest of the year. The Rays still control their own destiny and I suspect they will for most of the 2nd half. But, in order to make that destiny, they're going to have to be the teams that, as for now, are better than them.