The Rays made it look easy in the first two months of the season. They bludgeoned opponents with their pitching, hitting, and baserunning. This gave the Rays the best record in the majors by the start of June.

Then, the Rays went through a bad stretch in June. The pitching was not up to par, and their hitters slumped at the same time. This resulted in the Rays finishing 11-14
in June. The Yankees leapfrogged the Rays for first place in the AL East standings after the swoon.

The Rays chalked off their June struggles as a bad month. They believed they would get it together when the calendar turned to July. The Rays did just that by winning 10 of 13 games before the All-Star break. It was not good enough for first place, but it was good enough to take the lead in the wild-card race.

Overall, it’s hard to complain about the Rays. They responded to adversity well, and they came together after B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria had their tussle in the dugout during the losing streak. They have one of the best records in baseball, and they managed to create breathing room between themselves and the Red Sox for second place while keeping up with the Yankees.

Despite their success, there’s room for improvement. That can’t be taken lightly. In the AL East, teams can’t be complacent or satisfied with their success if they want to entertain thoughts of playing in October.

One of the things that the Rays need to do is make a deal. They need to go for it with many players not likely to come back next year due to free agency. 

So why not think big? They need to go get an elite hitter or an ace. Either Corey Hart or Dan Haren needs to be wearing a Rays uniform soon.

By getting someone at the trade deadline, it sends a message to the players and coaches that ownership expects them to go out and win a championship. It can energize a team; it sounds ridiculous, but it’s the truth.

As great as the Rays are, they need one more player to seal a playoff spot. They need a starter more than anything. Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis pitched well enough before the All-Star break, but can they sustain that success? Davis has been shaky after a good start, and Niemann can have his slumps. It’s hard to trust James Shields anymore.

That’s where Dan Haren comes in. He can complement David Price and Matt Garza to form a great starting trio. A great team features three great starters. The Yankees have the best record in baseball because they have four starters who can win every fifth day. The same can be said for the Red Sox.

If they can’t get a pitcher, they need to get a hitter. A guy who can hit a home run. A guy who can be the bookend between Carl Crawford and Longoria. That’s where Hart
comes to play. He hits for power, and makes it hard for starters to walk Crawford or Longoria.

They also need to get better performance by their veterans.

It starts with Upton. He has not hit the ball well throughout the first half, and it shows with his .230 batting average. He has homered seven times this year, and driven in just 30 RBIs. Too often, he is an automatic out. With his talent, there’s no reason for him to play like that.

Carlos Pena went through a long drought the first two months of the year. He did okay in June, but they need to get more out of him. His batting average is .203. At least, his home run power is good with 18 home runs.

Jason Bartlett has to hit the ball better instead of being an automatic out. If not, he should lose playing time.

With the track records of these players, the bright side of these slumps is that they may be coming to an end.

Speaking of slumping, Shields needs to start winning games. He needs to go deep in games and avoid self-destructing. It’s a mystery how he has regressed. The Rays may have a hard time getting a pitcher, so the onus is on him to figure out what’s wrong and fix it.

He can get started tomorrow night against the Yankees.

The Rays need to have a killer instinct, and that means going for sweeps. Taking a series is nice, but playoff teams have at least 10 sweeps during the course of a year. The Rays have seven sweeps so far this year, which is good. That means sweeping the Orioles, Blue Jays, Mariners, and Royals in September, and maybe several other teams in July and August.

There’s no question that this team has the talent to do great things. It would be a disappointment if they don’t make the playoffs. With this roster, they should have an opportunity to win a championship.

A perfect situation would be the Yankees slumping these next two months to the point that they would be fighting for their playoff lives, but we live in reality and not in a dream world. The Yankees will be in the playoffs whether they win the division or not. Their talent speaks for itself.

The Red Sox could be a team that will give the Rays trouble when all is said and done. They managed to stay in the race despite injuries to Josh Beckett, Victor Martinez, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jason Varitek, Mike Lowell, and Jeremy Hermida. It’s impressive that they are 51-37. Any time a team has that many guys on the disabled list, it can break a team, but their success speaks of the depth of that organization and the great leadership of Terry Francona.

The Red Sox will get all their stars back from the disabled list soon, and bet on them to make moves at the trade deadline. They will be a better team. That’s the team the Rays need to fear most.

The Rays can hold off Boston by continuing to win at the pace they did in April, May, and the first couple of weeks of July, but that’s going to be easier said than
done. But there’s no question they can do it.

All the Rays have to do is make some improvements!

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