Evan Longoria played for the Rays in the season's first month, and the club went 15-8, closing out April with the AL East lead. Longoria suffered a hamstring injury, though, one that would keep him out of the picture until August 7. In that stretch, the Rays hovered around the .500 mark, and sat at 56-52, seven games back of the first-place Yankees and two back in the wild card, upon Longoria's return.
Things have been very different since the Rays' top player came back, as they have gone 14-3 since. Tampa Bay leads a four-way tie for the wild card, and has shrunk the gap with New York to just 2½ games. Obviously, this is what happens when your MVP-caliber third baseman comes back after an extended absence and hits .255/.306/.382 over 17 games.
Wait, you're not convinced that Longoria, with his impression of what the Rays got out of third base in his absence -- Tampa Bay hit a collective .236/.310/.343 at the hot corner while Longoria was on the disabled list -- is the reason that they are suddenly threatening the AL East leaders? Tampa Bay's offense might not scream impressive all of the time, and they certainly missed Longoria's bat, but it's been nearly everyone except Longoria that deserves praise for their recent stretch of excellence.
Four Rays have posted slugging percentages over .500 in the last 17 contests: B.J Upton leads at .571 thanks to five homers, Ben Zobrist has hit .322/.379/.542 in his last 59 at-bats, Desmond Jennings looks like he's finally waking up (.322/.385/.508, with four steals in five chances, too), and even Jeff Keppinger has been in on the fun, posting a 922 OPS in his 14 starts and 16 games. Ryan Roberts has been more than solid, too, contributing a .296/.344/.444 line.
Not everyone is hitting -- Carlos Pena continues to look like this is the end for him as a useful major-league hitter -- but the Rays put up a collective .281/.343/.455 in these 17 games, whereas they just barely cleared a 650 OPS in the months without Longoria. It's not Longoria's bat that brought them here, but apparently, he's a mage with buffs that increase the damage output of his teammates*. Time to revamp WAR again.
*Clearly, Pena is outside of his AoE.
It's not just a phenomenal stretch of hitting that Longoria plopped back into the lineup in time for. The Rays pitching has been lights out, in both the rotation and in the bullpen, in this 17-game stretch of August. James Shields owns a 2.83 ERA with a 23/3 K/BB in his last four starts. Jeremy Hellickson has continued his voodoo thing, giving up just four runs in his last three starts and 19 innings, despite just 10 punch outs and nothing special in his grounder rates. David Price is leading the AL with a 2.28 ERA, and has helped his cause since Longoria's return, tossing 22 frames in three starts while giving up all of two runs. It hasn't just been the veterans, though, as Alex Cobb (3.51 ERA, four GS, 21 K in 25 IP) and Matt Moore (1.86 ERA, 5.0 K/BB in three starts) have done their fair share, too.
The rotation's combined efforts -- 2.35 ERA, 7.5 strikeouts per nine, 5.3 K/BB, nearly seven innings per start -- along with the strong work of the lineup have made it so that the bullpen hasn't needed to be leaned on too heavily. They've kept on lifting the Rays, though: at the same time Rays' starters have limited opponents to the above, their relievers have kept the opposition to a .186/.242/.243 line.
The bullpen has been ridiculous since the All-Star break, though parts of it have been great for longer than that. They've allowed a .176/.242/.223 line since the break, striking out nearly 30 percent of the batters they've faced. Fernando Rodney, who owns a 0.77 ERA for the season, is the clear anchor in a season in which his command has reached levels it never had in the past, all thanks to simply shifting on the rubber. J.P. Howell, after dealing with injuries and ineffectiveness the last two years, is back to his dominant form of the last decade. Joel Peralta is now in his third-straight season of effective relief. This bunch has been joined by newcomer Burke Badenhop, who has been as productive with the Rays as he's ever been in his career, as well as second-year hurler Jake McGee (45 strikeouts in 38 innings), and Wade Davis, a starter the Rays sent to relief at a time when everyone else does the opposite. The move has worked, as Davis once again looks like the pitcher that struck out a batter per inning at the end of 2009, and the Rays' pen is stronger for it.
It's easy to think that Longoria's return is what has brought the Rays back from their slow descent to .500, but that's been more happenstance than fact. There might be a worry that, once the pitching slows a bit, or the lineup's less reliable parts stop mashing as they have of late, that Tampa Bay will once again fall back. As long as Longoria gets his timing back by then, though, then it'll likely be your normal postseason this October: one with the Rays involved yet again.