BOSTON -- After taking the field each of the last 16 days, and 29 of the last 30, the Rays earned their rest on Thursday.
The Rays began the month of June with a scheduled off-day in Boston after a May that challenged them yet did nothing to refute the notion that Tampa Bay remains the best team in baseball.
“We’re pitching. We’re hitting,” Yandy Díaz said through interpreter Manny Navarro. “I think putting all that together makes us the best team in the league.”
The Rays entered Friday’s series opener at Fenway Park with a 40-18 record, the Majors’ top mark, after completing a grueling stretch in which they went 17-12 against eight clubs that had a combined .540 winning percentage through play on Wednesday. (Neither here nor there, but that clip would have led either Central division as of Thursday morning.)
MLB.com’s Sarah Langs looked yesterday at what it means to be in first place on June 1 and a few other key points to monitor moving forward. The Rays’ schedule will lighten up a bit this month, and the three scheduled off-days will be nice after such a long haul through May, but the American League East provides little margin for error.
Before looking ahead, though, let’s review some of the Rays’ top performers from the past month.
Player of the Month
As of Thursday’s off-day, this is the complete list of qualified American League hitters with a better OPS than Díaz: Aaron Judge. That’s it.
Díaz has been a machine for the Rays, lifting more of his hard-hit balls to add power to his patient approach at the plate. As a result, he’s hitting .310/.410/.580 with 12 homers and 30 RBIs, and he’s still only struck out four more times (30) than he’s walked (26) while batting atop Tampa Bay’s lineup. Last month, Díaz hit .300/.398/.575 with five homers and 14 RBIs in 21 games. He’s delivering consistent, star-level production.
Díaz is the pick here, but he had plenty of competition from the likes of…
• Jose Siri: team-leading eight homers
• Luke Raley: .859 OPS, seven steals
• Randy Arozarena: 20 walks last month, only three fewer than he had in the entire first half last year
• Josh Lowe: six homers, team-leading 19 RBIs, eight steals
• Wander Franco, who, according to Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement, has been the most valuable player in baseball two months into the season.
Pitcher of the Month
Zach Eflin was good in May, posting a 3.46 ERA while logging 36 strikeouts and only five walks as the Rays went 5-1 behind him. He provided valuable length, too, working six innings in three of his starts and seven in the other three. Taj Bradley’s strikeout-to-walk numbers are remarkable for such a young pitcher with power stuff, and Tyler Glasnow remains nasty.
But this has got to be the guy at the top of MLB.com’s latest Starting Pitcher Power Rankings, right?
Shane McClanahan is having the kind of first half that will make him a candidate to start the All-Star Game for a second straight year. He’s had some issues with his control, with 13 walks in 35 2/3 innings last month, but few starters in the Majors can match his combination of stuff and determination. The lefty put together a 2.02 ERA and struck out 40 batters over six starts in May.
The performance that stood out most? It was arguably his best start of the season on May 24, when McClanahan set the tone for a convincing victory the day after the Rays’ ugly 20-1 loss to the Blue Jays. That’s what an ace does.
Reliever of the Month
These stats are occasionally affected by the Rays’ opener/bulk-inning strategy, plus the odd position-player pitching performance, but the numbers will catch your attention regardless: Tampa Bay had the Majors’ worst bullpen ERA (5.73), WHIP (1.57), strikeout rate (18.5%) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.82) last month.
Things should get better as Pete Fairbanks, Shawn Armstrong and, eventually, Andrew Kittredge get healthy and other arms get right -- Jason Adam had probably his best stuff of the year during his two-inning save against the Dodgers, a good sign -- but this is clearly the biggest non-injury area of concern right now.
We’ll give this nod to a reliever who opened four games in May and saved the last one: Jalen Beeks. The left-hander had a rough April, but he recorded a 1.80 ERA with 19 strikeouts and six walks and held opponents to a .508 OPS in 15 innings over 11 outings. Given his recent performance, there might be more opportunities for Beeks late in games.
Voting is underway to select the eight position players and designated hitter who will start in the 2023 MLB All-Star Game in Seattle. You can find the ballot and vote five times per day here.
The Rays have plenty of worthy candidates in their lineup, led by the trio of Franco, Díaz and Arozarena.
“I feel like we’ve got a lot of guys that should be in the mix, in the top conversations, the way we’ve performed as a team,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Certainly there’s some individuals that have put together some really strong first halves.”
In the first phase, which ends on June 22 at 12 p.m. ET, the top overall vote-getter in each league will secure the starting spot at his position. Additionally, the top two infielders at each position, the top two designated hitters and the top six outfielders will advance to the next round of voting.
Rays prospect Junior Caminero, featured in this space a few weeks ago, has taken another big step. The hot-hitting third baseman was promoted from High-A Bowling Green to Double-A Montgomery last weekend, and he made his Double-A debut by going 2-for-6 with a double on Tuesday.
This level will present a tougher challenge for the 19-year-old, now MLB Pipeline’s No. 57 overall prospect, but he was clearly ready for one after hitting .356/.409/.685 with 11 homers in 36 games for Bowling Green to start the season.
The “Randy Land” cheering section set up every Friday night at Tropicana Field is growing. The Rays announced that Arozarena’s most ardent supporters can now purchase $49 tickets, which come with a free t-shirt and (if he homers) a free drink, in Sections 141 and 143. Check this page for more details.
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