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tampa bay rays

There's a New Philosophy in Tampa: Just Mash Baby

These are not Joe Maddon's Rays. They're content to wallop baseballs, and fine with whiffing on them, too.

by Robert O'Connell
May 17 2017, 3:17pm

TFW you mash. © David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

If you last kept up with the Tampa Bay Rays during the salad days of Joe Maddon and Andrew Friedman—and who could blame you?—you probably remember a club that was versatile, resourceful, and inherently balanced. It was that last characteristic that propelled them to the 2008 World Series, and to the postseason three more times over the following five years. Those Rays played good defense, got on base, and didn't make mistakes; everybody pitched in. Friedman found Ben Zobrist, the 21st century's premier utility player, but also struck gold with more marginal positional chameleons like Sean Rodriguez. Maddon, for his part, was happy to use them in any and every way possible, filling out years of avant-garde lineup cards in support of steady work from David Price and James Shields.

Now Maddon's in Chicago, Friedman's in Los Angeles, and the Rays are different. On Tuesday night, they beat the Indians using what has become their preferred method: turning baseballs into meteors. Tampa Bay's six runs (against Cleveland's four) came via five homers. The onslaught shoved their season total up to 55, second only to the New York Yankees in the American League.

The bombs came from a range of sources. Colby Rasmus, a former top prospect who now walks the earth to grow mangy beards and hit majestic blasts, dug out a Danny Salazar fastball in the second. Derek Norris, the 28-year-old catcher who made an All-Star appearance with Oakland in 2014 but has scuffled in his first year with the Rays, snuck a hanging slider inside the left foul pole in the third. Corey Dickerson, Tampa Bay's best all-around hitter, added solo shots in the third and fifth, the latter a gravity-defier that cleared the plumage behind Cleveland's centerfield wall and felt to him like it went further than ESPN's measurement of 453 feet. Tim Beckham, the shortstop most notable for being selected ahead of Buster Posey in the 2008 draft, tacked on his seventh of the year in the sixth inning.

The tally didn't even include anything from Logan Morrison, who after hitting 14 homers all of last season has already reached 10 already this year, but it nevertheless exemplified what has become the house style in Tampa. The Rays swing hard and don't care about missing. They struck out 16 times Tuesday night, which raised their season total to an MLB-leading 441. This, too, was in keeping with the game plan. "Against Salazar," manager Kevin Cash said, "we were looking to jump his fastball early…We did all we could to ambush a couple of his fastballs."

Some traces of the old Tampa Bay subtlety do remain. Jake Odorizzi, Tuesday's starter, uses the fastball-changeup combination that has been passed down through the organization since Shields, and Kevin Kiermaier may be the finest centerfielder in the sport. Mostly, though, the new Rays are content to wallop and whiff, and to tie their fortunes not to mix-and-match versatility but to the louder vagaries of the long ball. If that's not quite the recipe for guerrilla success that they used in their half-decade heyday—the Rays presently sit in fourth place in the AL East—it does, on the right nights, at least make for a good show.