ST. PETERSBURG — Forget the score. That was an anomaly.
Focus, instead, on the difference-makers. The game-changers. Those rare hitters in the Rays’ lineup who will likely stand between glory and postseason disappointment.
Revisit each plate appearance by Wander Franco and Randy Arozarena in Thursday night’s 10-5 win against the Blue Jays.
And then pray that they look that good in October.
In a postseason that will be filled with big names and bigger bats, the Rays will be at an offensive disadvantage. They do not bludgeon, they do not hammer, they do not wallop.
It is not the way this team is built. Tampa Bay is below average when it comes to scoring runs and way below average when it comes to hitting home runs.
For crying out loud, Aaron Judge has 60 homers. The entire Rays outfield has 40.
So if the Rays turn into postseason darlings, their pitching staff will likely be responsible. Their starters will need to throw quality innings, and their bullpen had better be flawless.
But there will still be moments when the Rays are going to have to answer the dinger bell. The Blue Jays have Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette. The Yankees have Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. The Astros have Jose Altuve and Kyle Tucker.
And the Rays have Franco and Arozarena.
How critical are they to Tampa Bay’s October hopes?
“About as critical as it can possibly be,” manager Kevin Cash said. “Not to put pressure on them, (but) they’ve got to be who they are. And if they are, we’re that much better of a team.”
It has, at various points, been a trying season for both of them.
For four months, it looked as if Arozarena was heading toward a classic sophomore slump. Through the first week of August, he was hitting .251 with a pedestrian-looking OPS of .725.
Since then, however, Arozarena has been Tampa Bay’s best player, hitting .313 with a .931 OPS and 34 RBIs in 42 games.
Franco, on the other hand, got off to a hot start in 2022. He was hitting .325 in mid-May but then started having quad issues and later broke his hand. Since returning to the lineup Sept. 9, Franco has hit .321 over 15 games.
“Fortunately, I feel really good,” Franco said through team interpreter Manny Navarro. “I think I’m starting to feel a little bit more like I felt at the beginning of the year. I’ve made little adjustments that hopefully continue on.”
Between them, Franco and Arozarena had three doubles, two singles, one walk, five RBIs and three runs Thursday night.
Of course, those were not the only big nights in the series opener against Toronto. Jonathan Aranda hit a leadoff homer, David Peralta drove in two runs, and Manuel Margot had a pair of hits. And when the postseason rolls around, Yandy Diaz and Brandon Lowe (if he’s healthy) will also be counted on for big moments.
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But there is a difference between complementary players and stars. You welcome contributions from everyone, but you need your best players to step up in October.
The Astros? They have four guys in their lineup with 21 or more homers. So do the Yankees. With Teoscar Hernandez’s homer Thursday, the Blue Jays actually have five.
And the Rays? Zip.
Because Tampa Bay’s lineup is neither as top-heavy nor as deep as the other contenders, it’s even more important for Arozarena and Franco to be driving balls to the gaps as they did Thursday night.
“They’re our guys,” said Peralta. “Those two guys in the lineup is what we need every day. (Thursday) we showed what type of team we are with those two guys.”
There is still work to do, and still time for the rest of the offense to find a better groove. Tampa Bay’s magic number is eight with 12 games remaining, so it would take a collapse of epic proportions for the Rays to fall out of the playoff picture at this point.
But the idea that Arozarena and Franco are beginning to heat up as we move toward the postseason may be the best sign that the Rays have a fighting chance in it.
On a night such as this, you can see the possibilities.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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