If you had known that by mid-May there would be eight Tampa Bay Rays players on the disabled list, where would you have predicted the team to stand in the AL East?
If you had known that the roll call of injuries included such key names as Evan Longoria, Desmond Jennings, Jeff Niemann, Kyle Farnsworth and earlier on B.J. Upton, how far down in the standings would you have projected the Rays?
You certainly couldnt have expected this: tied for first place and nine games over .500.
Somehow, despite the bad health news that has beset them, the Rays keep finding ways to win games and battle back from adversity.
With their back-to-back wins in Toronto this week, they salvaged a road trip that was heading south in a hurry, threatening to drag the Rays with them after such a promising start to the season.
They could easily have returned home from their latest swing at 1-7 or 2-6. Instead, after coming back from a 3-0 deficit Tuesday night in Toronto to beat the Blue Jays 4-3, they return with a welcome 4-4 split on the road and as co-leaders of the AL East with resurgent Baltimore with a record of 23-14.
Their timing couldnt be better, considering they face a last-place yet improving Boston Red Sox team (17-19) on Wednesday and Thursday at the Trop, with NL East leader Atlanta (23-14) coming to town for a weekend series Friday.
"Four-and-four off that road trip is spectacular,'' manager Joe Maddon told the media following the comeback win. "Some tough games in New York. Some tough games in Baltimore. To come back and beat a very good team, Toronto, here, coming from behind both nights, that's spectacular."
Whats impressive is how players have stepped up to fill the void. Utility infielder Elliot Johnson, whose batting average has rarely crossed the Mendoza Line in the past two seasons, is on the tear of his career. In the ninth spot, hes batting .500, 11 for 22 with a hitting streak of seven games to raise his average to .288.
Sean Rodriguez has made some big plays defensively, switching recently from shortstop to third base in Longorias absence. And hes been just as valuable at the plate in the sixth hole, hitting .333 (11 for 33) in his last 10 games to raise his seasons average from the low .239. In both Toronto games, Rodriguez made huge offensive contributions a two-run double to fuel a six-run fifth inning in Mondays 7-1 triumph, and a towering solo home run in the seventh Tuesday to cut the deficit to 3-2 and initiate the comeback.
Meanwhile, Will Rhymes continues to make an impact after being called up from Durham to fill Longorias roster spot. After a strong start, Rhymes found himself in an 0-16 slump from the last two Yankees games and first two Baltimore contests on the road. But hes gone 5 for 12 in the past three outings, playing a role in all three victories.
The latest was also made possible by left-hander David Price, who weathered a rocky three-run third and settled in for a dominating effort: seven innings, six hits, no walks and six strikeouts in raising his record to 6-2 with a 3.10 ERA. Joel Peralta pitched a perfect eighth to set up Fernando Rodney, who shut the door on the three batters he faced.
One of those, Brett Lawrie, took exception with umpire Bill Millers called third strike and flung his helmet to the ground, only to see it bounce up and hit Miller. He was ejected, along with manager John Farrell, who came to Lawries defense to take issue with the strike call. That was the only excitement the Jays mustered at the end in dropping to 19-18, now fourth place behind the Yankees (20-16).
For the Rays, the excitement has returned after a difficult stretch in which they lost two winnable games to Oakland on May 5-6, dropped two close games at Yankee Stadium and lost a pair of tight decisions at Baltimore. But the pendulum began to swing back their way on Sunday when they built a 7-1 lead against the Orioles and held on for a tense 9-8 victory.
They prevailed without leadoff hitter and star left fielder Desmond Jennings, who was placed on the DL Monday afternoon with a sprained right knee. And on Monday night, they survived again in spite of losing starter Niemann in the second inning after a line drive struck his foot in the first, knocking him out of the game with what was later diagnosed as a bone fracture.
Cesar Ramos came to the rescue with three strong innings (one hit, one walk) to pick up the win, with Wade Davis, J.P. Howell, Burke Badenhop and Jake McGee combining to limit Toronto to three hits the rest of the way.
Now comes the next challenge, a two-game series with Boston. The Red Sox took three of four from the Rays at Fenway last month, but Tampa Bay won the last game a 1-0 shutout by James Shields.
The Sox have won five in a row, though they got healthy against the lowly Seattle Mariners this week with a three-game sweep the same team the Rays took four straight from in their last homestand.
On Wednesday, Boston will pitch Clay Buchholz (4-1 despite a horrendous ERA of 8.31) against Jeremy Hellickson (3-0, 2.95). Hellickson is coming off a good performance against the Orioles last Friday (6.2 innings, five hits), though the Rays eventually lost 4-3. Hes won a career-high five straight decisions dating back to Sept. 4 and hasnt lost a game since last Aug. 30 at Texas. Against the Red Sox, hes 2-1 with a 4.99 ERA.
Thursdays matchup features rookie Matt Moore, struggling to live up to high expectations at 1-3 with a 5.31 ERA, and Boston lefty Felix Doubront (3-1, 4.46).
Considering how things began on the road, the Rays might well have returned home today in a tailspin. But theyre back in the friendly confines of the Trop, where theyve gone 13-3 this season, and suddenly seem to have found their groove again regardless of the obstacles in their path.
"I just love the attitude," Maddon said. "You can see it among us, but in the dugout during the course of the game, it's always alive. It's really fun.
Given the mammoth size of the DL list, thats really saying something.