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Second half preview: Rays look to keep trucking towards October

Key players set to return as division still within reach.

For the last couple of seasons, a case can be made that injuries have been a huge factor in the Rays missing the post-season. Every team goes through injuries. Most teams experience injuries to key players. In 2016, when OF Kevin Kiermaier went down in mid-June the Rays spiraled into a 3-24 stretch all but ending their season in mid-July.

Fast-forward to mid-July 2017.

The Rays are 47-43 and in a virtual tie for second place in the AL East and AL wild card with the Yankees. Heading into the All Star break they took three of four from the first place Red Sox. That’s momentum, folks. The best kind of momentum.

Keep on truckin’.

The west coast awaits the Rays as they begin a six-game road trip to Anaheim and Oakland. The Angels (45-47) are just three games back in the wild card race, making this three-game series that much more important for both teams.

Key players currently on the mend look to return and add that much more to a team already in control of their playoff destiny. Kiermaier should be back sometime mid-August. RHP Matt Andriese could be back around the same time. SS Tim Beckham is slated to return sometime after the break. The timetable on OF Colby Rasmus is uncertain as the team is dealing with controversy surrounding his medical diagnosis in the off-season.

Injuries aside, this team has not only kept their heads above water but they’re proving to be legit contenders in both the AL wild card picture and the AL East race. Heading into the trade deadline in a few weeks, the Rays could find themselves a bit higher in the standings. From July 27-30, they’ll be up in New York taking on the Yanks. How they leave New York will go a long way to making some key decisions come the deadline.

Can they keep it up?

DH Corey Dickerson and 1B Logan Morrison have been the surprises of the season. Especially “LoMo” both at the plate and at his position. No one is talking about him as a Gold Glove candidate – but maybe they should as he’s committed just two errors in over 700 chances in the field.

OF Mallex Smith has been a spark plug and one of the more exciting players in the game. RF Steven Souza Jr is healthy and having a career-year himself.

Can CL Alex Colome continue to dodge the bullets he has over his last handful of save opportunities? The Rays need him. They need RHP Brad Boxberger to continue to dominate after coming back from injury. They need a few things. This team may be in prime position to get those things come the deadline.

Deadline dealings?

Which direction the Rays choose to go is anyone’s guess. Offensively they’re among the elite in all of baseball. The rotation seems more than fine with the emergence of rookie RHP Jake Faria (4-0, 2.11) and RHP Alex Cobb (7-6, 3.75) starting to get into a groove. Not to mention the return of Andriese next month. Having said that, maybe trading a starting arm is the direction they go. The bullpen could use another proven arm or two. That would go a long way to making that playoff push late in the season. RHP Jake Odorizzi and LHP Blake Snell need to come around. Both have had their struggles this year and both will be key players down the stretch. Is it far-fetched to think one or both of them could be trade candidates?

The infield is crowded. SS/3B Matt Duffy is still hoping to return this year and INF Daniel Robertson has proven he can play solid defense anywhere on the infield while struggling to find consistency at the plate. Beckham’s bat has exploded this year. 2B Brad Miller looks like he might be putting his rough start to the year behind him. Then there’s SS Adeiny Hechevarria who’s bat has cooled off significantly but he’s a highlight reel at shortstop. It’s safe to say one or two of these guys aren’t with the team come August.

Built for October?

If the Rays keep it up and find themselves in the post-season, a fair question remains.

Are they built for it? Do they have what and who it takes to make a deep run to the World Series…and a championship? With the guys they have in house right now they seem to be making believers out of many. 3B Evan Longoria has been there before. He knows what it takes. This year he hasn’t had to carry the load. That could prove to be a huge difference heading into October. RHP Chris Archer has had help. He hasn’t had to be the “stopper” on his own this year. Something else that can’t be ignored if this team gets back to the post-season.

A lot can happen over the course of the next couple of months. This team can make it. They can keep fighting. They’ve done it all year. Is a return to the playoffs possible after being out of it since 2013? Of course it’s possible.

If they can keep on truckin’.

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