10 most important spokes on the stretch

MILWAUKEE — The Rays will enter the field Tuesday night before the final third of their season feeling half bad about where they consider themselves to have played without their full roster.

At 58-50, they hold the second of three wildcard spots in the American League, with a 1 ½ game cushion to be in the field.

They’re on pace for 87 wins and have a better chance than not making the playoffs based on several of the major projection models: 58.7% by Fangraphs.com; 55.5 by baseball-reference.com; 54% by FiveThirtyEight.com.

And they’re confident that after being so shorthanded, they’ll soon be a much better team. Over the next three weeks, several key impact players who have missed extended time due to injury are expected to return.

“It hasn’t been a normal year for any of us,” second baseman Brandon Lowe said. “A lot of injuries. Hopefully we’ll have a lot of guys coming back here soon after. So for us to ride and get guys back to help us keep going is going to be a fun recipe for the rest of the season.

Here are the 10 players who matter the most:

10. Tyler Glasnow, starter

Rays pitcher Tyler Glasnow has been out since Tommy John’s surgery last August. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

There’s no guarantee Glasnow, who has been out of rehab since August 2021’s Tommy John elbow surgery, will even return to kick off this season; whether he would be able to work more than a set or two at a time if he did; or if he would be close to his dominant form before the injury. But it would be a major emotional boost for the team if he did.

9. Colin Poche, reliever

Relievers like Colin Poche will become more critical to the team's success in the latter part of the regular season.
Relievers like Colin Poche will become more critical to the team’s success in the latter part of the regular season. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Poche has been Jason Adam’s left-handed counterpart in handling high-leverage situations and has seven team-leading saves. The Rays will be hoping he’s back on track after a recent tough run (6.94 ERA, three missed saves in 13 games). With starting innings limited, the Rays will rely on their bullpen even more, and they need Poche, Pete Fairbanks, Brooks Raley and Ryan Thompson to be on their game.

8. Harold Ramirez, outfielder

Manager Kevin Cash high-fives designated hitter Harold Ramirez, who may have been more productive than the Rays thought before the injury.
Manager Kevin Cash high-fives designated hitter Harold Ramirez, who may have been more productive than the Rays thought before the injury. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
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Ramirez, a seemingly small mid-spring acquisition who also sees time at DH and first base, has become a big part of the offense with his .329 average and .825 OPS, contact-oriented approach, power casual and her clutch prowess. He had his right thumb broken by a pitch in the last game before the All-Star break and a late August return would provide a welcome boost and thicken the roster, while also taking a few bats from the struggling Ji-Man Choi . .

7. Francisco Mejia, receiver

Francisco Mejia has the Rays' full confidence behind the plate.
Francisco Mejia has the Rays’ full confidence behind the plate. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

With Mike Zunino out for the season and no receivers added at the trade deadline, the Rays made it clear they trusted Mejia for his home plate switch, play calls and improved throwing. They will see if their faith was well placed.

6. Manuel Margot, outfielder

The return of Manuel Margot, possibly later this month, will be a huge boost for programming.
The return of Manuel Margot, possibly later this month, will be a huge boost for programming. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

What had the makings of an All-Star season for the silent leader then seemed to be over when he was carried off the field with a right knee injury on June 20. But the damage was limited, the recovery was encouraging and the Rays are waiting for him now and his steady bat and slick glove around Aug. 20.

5. Wander Franco, shortstop

Wander Franco still has time to put an exclamation mark on his second season.
Wander Franco still has time to put an exclamation mark on his second season. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

You can think of this as a lost second season for the 21-year-old Rays wonder, or bank on him returning in late August after two long absences (quad stump, broken hamate bone) with a vengeance to recover. as one of the most dynamic young stars in the game. The Rays rely, a lot, on the latter.

4. Jason Adam, reliever

Jason Adam has been the reliable reliever the Rays need with injuries all over the roster.
Jason Adam has been the reliable reliever the Rays need with injuries all over the roster. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

With Andrew Kittredge and JP Feyereisen injured and Pete Fairbanks missing the first half of the season, the Rays needed a right-handed reliever to handle the seemingly everyday high-leverage moments. Up stepped up Adam, he’s previous career 4.71 ERA and no saves. In his first 47 games, he posted a 1.24 ERA, converted five of six saves, blocked 23 of 24 legacy runners.

3. Shane McClanahan, starter

Shane McClanahan is yet to return to his pre-All-Star break form, but there's no doubt he's an ace the Rays need over the long haul and beyond.
Shane McClanahan is yet to return to his pre-All-Star break form, but there’s no doubt he’s an ace the Rays need over the long haul and beyond. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Manager Kevin Cash is adamant there’s no cause for concern and the left-handed ace says he’s feeling good physically as he nears his career high in innings pitched. So maybe it’s just coincidence, bad breaks and good batsmen, as the team suggests, why McClanahan hasn’t been very good since his All-Star exit.

In 18 games before the break, he was 10-3, 1.77, 0.177 and 0.506 OPS, 0.62 hits and 1.32 strikeouts per inning and swing rate and missed by 17%. In the three games since, he’s 0-2, 5.60, allowed .227 average and .641 OPS, averaged .85 hits and .79 strikeouts per inning and has a 15% swing-and-miss rate. There’s the obvious advantage that he puts them in position to win his starts, but also the confidence a team has with their best pitcher on the mound at key times. The Rays need it all.

2. Randy Arozarena, outfielder

Randy Arozarena is a dynamic player, but he doesn't always make the best choices once on base.
Randy Arozarena is a dynamic player, but he doesn’t always make the best choices once on base. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Arozarena may be the most exciting player on the pitch one minute, given his ability and athleticism, and the most frustrating the next, given his decision-making. He leads the Rays in hits (102), RBIs (51) and interceptions (21) and with 12 homers, he has a chance for a second straight season 20-20. But he’s had 20 strikeouts, hit a team-high 108 times and can drift into extended funks. Similarly, the Rays need Yandy Diaz to return to his usual regular game.

1. Brandon Lowe, second baseman

Brandon Lowe has been the roster's constant stick since his return in mid-July.
Brandon Lowe has been the roster’s constant stick since his return in mid-July. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

Lowe is the biggest game-changer in the lineup when he launches into one of his hot streaks given his potential to go deep – or at least drive a ball into space – on n’ any swing, and his presence helps the rest of the Rays’ hitters. Lowe seems determined to make up for lost time after a lower back injury forced him to miss two months and limited him before that. In his first 17 games since returning July 16, he hit .324 with .916 OPS, with five doubles and three homers.

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