Infielder Evan Longoria #3 of the Tampa Bay Rays congratulates Matt Joyce #20 after scoring against the Texas Rangers during the game at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
Not so long ago, the Tampa Bay Rays were in first place. Today they can't see first place with a telescope, and the return of Matt Joyce might not be enough to arrest their slide.
Here's a sentence I didn't expect to be writing after the All-Star break this season:
The Tampa Bay Rays have been outscored.
Not by a lot. Barely at all. They've been outscored by one run. It's not like they're the Orioles or something.
Still, it's been a significant comedown for a team that a) won 187 games in 2010-2011, and b) stood 35-25 on the 10th of June this season, and in first place.
Since then, though, it's been a rude descent to the middle. The Rays have lost 19 of their last 30 games and fallen from first place to a tie for third place, ridiculously far behind the Yankees.
The good news is that Matt Joyce, the Rays' best hitter, is coming off the Disabled List after missing a month with a strained oblique. The bad news is that Joyce is just one man. Which leaves the Rays still short a few men.
The Rays' problems are not hard to diagnose.
They're second in E.R.A.
They're 12th in O.P.S.
Granted, they do play their home games in a pitcher's park. But even if you adjust for that, they've essentially enjoyed the services of just four effective hitters this season: Joyce, Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, and Jeff Keppinger.
Joyce has missed a month, Longoria's missed most of the season, and Keppinger's a utility player. Which leaves Zobrist as the only hitter on the whole team who's made a positive contribution to the ledger for the whole season.
Which leaves a lot of guys who haven't. Carlos Peña, Sean Rodriguez, Desmond Jennings, and B.J. Upton were all supposed to help, and they all have not helped. Unaccountably, Hideki Matsui was brought aboard; he's got a .165 batting average in 30 games and I still have no idea what the Rays could have seen in him.
Of course the Rays are far from finished. Essentially, they're fighting with four other teams -- the Red Sox, Angels, Athletics, and whoever finishes second in the Central -- for one of the Wild Card slots.*
* Yes, I'm leaving the Orioles and the Indians out of this equation, and I will continue to leave them out until they get their run differentials turned around.
It seems pretty clear, though, that the Rays' chances hinge upon Longoria, whose hamstring injury has kept him out of action since late April. While his return would by no means guarantee a good stretch run, his absence would seem to preclude such a thing. A natural improvement does seem likely, even without Longoria; there are just too many hitters hitting worse than naturally expected. But modest natural improvements probably aren't enough, because the Rays' competition is strong, and figures to get stronger by the trade deadline, with the Red Sox and Angels probably making movies.
The Rays, considering their low payroll, simply aren't designed to win 90-plus games without their best player.
So getting Matt Joyce back is nice, and will help. But the Rays need Longoria back for the last two months of the season. And at the moment, there's absolutely no guarantee they'll get him.