|Scouts praise Tampa Bay's starting pitching, led by ace David Price. (US Presswire)|
NEW YORK -- With Evan Longoria and others on the disabled list, the Rays were 12th in the American League in runs scored in May. They were 13th in batting average, just ahead of the A's, who are threatening major-league records for offensive futility.
The Rays were giving up unearned runs like they never have before.
Oh, and one more thing: The Rays began the month in first place -- and ended it there, too.
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"Sometimes it seems magical," first baseman Carlos Pena said Tuesday. "We've gotten some wins that are just pulled out of a hat."
Sometimes, it doesn't work. Tuesday night, the Rays had a horrible game in a 7-0 loss to the Yankees. No magic here, as they fell back into a first-place tie with the Orioles.
But the Rays have still held or shared first place in the tough American League East for 37 of 61 days this season, including each of the last 10.
Some of those days, you wonder how they've done it.
Scouts who watch the Rays come away praising their starting pitching, as you'd expect. They question the bullpen, and they look at the Longoria-less lineup and wonder how this team does it.
One answer, obviously, is that the pitching really is that good.
"That's all it is," shortstop Elliot Johnson agreed. "The No. 1 thing is that our starting pitching is so good."
But one scout who watched the Rays earlier this year suggested that there's more to it than just the pitching.
"They play as a team better than any team in baseball," the scout said. "I hope they don't take this the wrong way, but it's almost like they're a college team."
They don't take it the wrong way. In fact, they agree.
"Our chemistry is second to none," Pena said. "It's almost like a frat house."
Perhaps because they don't have the money to afford high-priced prima donnas, the Rays bring in players who fit in. They bring in players who accept manager Joe Maddon's sometimes off-the-wall lineups.
Yes, Jeff Keppinger batted cleanup on opening day. Yes, Pena batted leadoff for 10 games, for the first time in his career.
"Only here," Pena said. "But fortune favors the bold -- and that is bold."
Longoria, who has missed more than a month now with a partially torn left hamstring, is back doing baseball activities now. Maddon said Tuesday that Longoria could begin a minor-league rehabilitation assignment within a few days, and could return to the lineup in a couple of weeks.
The Rays already have B.J. Upton and Desmond Jennings back. But they've still had only eight games all year in which Longoria, Jennings and Upton have all been in the lineup.
Not surprisingly, their record in those games is 7-1. They averaged 4.9 runs a game, nearly a run a game more than they have in all their other games.
The way the Rays pitch, that extra run can mean everything. They entered play Tuesday with a 25-4 record when they score four runs or more, as opposed to 6-19 when they never get to four.
Often enough, they get to four. I'm not always sure how they do it. I'm not always sure they're sure how they do it.
They say that part of the reason is that they're not afraid to lose games. In other words, losing a game doesn't get them down.
They say it's chemistry.
Or maybe it's magic.