MLB Insider: Everyone's ponying up to get Rays on track

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 7, 2014 - 6:57 PM
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Tampa Bay’s slow start has been a head-scratcher to manager Joe Maddon, right. The death of longtime Maddon confidant Don Zimmer was the most recent blow to shake the team’s psyche.

Photo: Steve Nesius • Associated Press,

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There were “Zim-dogs,” smothered in chili, in the clubhouse. There was a stick pony to ride in the dugout. There was a new pair of glasses on the manager’s face.

It’s been a long, sad, frustrating week for the Tampa Bay Rays, and Joe Maddon, known as the freest spirit among major league managers, had to call upon every distraction and superstition he could think of to change the atmosphere around his surprising last-place team.

“When you win,” Maddon told reporters Friday, “it makes the world rotate better.”

The Rays’ world was thrown out of its rotation on Wednesday, when longtime coach and Maddon confidant Don Zimmer died at age 83. That his death came in the middle of what would become a 10-game losing streak made the Rays’ misery far worse.

“Zim was a great man, and there’s really no words to explain what he brought to us and what he meant to me,” All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria said. “It’s just been a rough go for us, and this kind of puts the icing on the cake, so to speak. ... It’s just a rough night for us.”

It’s been rough for a while. The Rays were projected by many around baseball to be a powerhouse this season (Full disclosure: I predicted they would be American League champions, especially when they chose not to trade Cy Young winner David Price during the offseason, giving them one of the youngest and deepest rotations in the game).

Instead, they lost lefthander Matt Moore to season-ending elbow surgery, they lost righthander Alex Cobb for six weeks to an oblique injury, and their 4.10 ERA among their starters ranks ninth in the AL. Tampa Bay somehow owned the worst record in baseball (24-38) entering Saturday, 14 games behind first-place Toronto in the AL East.

Their offense has been far worse — Tampa Bay has scored the fewest runs in the American League. After scoring 700 times last season, the Rays are on pace to barely reach 600 this year. Rookie of the Year Wil Myers has been terrible (.227 with five homers entering the weekend), Longoria’s in a power drought, and no Ray has hit more than six home runs. Tampa Bay is hitting just .236 with runners in scoring position.

“I don’t want to be Mr. Negative,” Maddon told mlb.com, “but we can’t keep leaving that many guys on base.”

Actually, Maddon remains Mr. Positive, as always, despite the franchise’s longest losing streak in four years, a skid that ended when Erik Bedard shut out Seattle on Friday. Afterward, the manager made it clear he believes the Rays can get back into the race.

“It’s a long season, and I’m looking forward to every day of it,” Maddon told reporters. “... I’m not concerned, because I know how good our guys are. We’re not back yet. This was one game. But we can build off that.”

Maddon is a master of keeping things light, of deflecting pressure from his players and keeping the six-month season from becoming a grind, and he was at his best on Friday. He wore a new pair of glasses, for one thing, changing his look in hopes of changing his luck.

He also arranged for the nearby Coney Island Grill to send 50 chili dogs to the team’s clubhouse before the game, a tribute to Zimmer, who often ate the snack before Rays games.

And he encouraged Longoria’s idea of having each Ray who scored a run ride the pony-stick toy in the dugout after crossing the plate.

Somehow, it all worked on Friday. But it’s going to take more than gimmicks and distractions to get Tampa Bay into the postseason for the fifth time in seven years.

Notes

Burdi wants in; Gardy asks why not

To some, it sounded like hubris when Louisville closer Nick Burdi, the Twins’ second-round draft pick, suggested that “if they decide to put me in the majors next year or this summer, it would be an honor.” To Ron Gardenhire, it sounded like a pretty good idea.

“I’m like, ‘Is he ready?’ ” the Twins manager said Saturday. “If he throws 103 [miles per hour], what’s he going to fix in the minor leagues? Bring him, we’ll take him right now.”

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