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Evan Longoria's health and hot bat will be key to the soft-hitting Rays' wild-card chances

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports

ANAHEIM, Ca. – Joe Maddon was asked about a camera crew that seemed to be all in the Tampa Bay Rays' business. The manager mirthfully assured the assembled reporters, those also all in the Rays' business, by the way, "They're not going to see our secrets. All the esoteric stuff will remain such. We don't unfetter for anybody."

The Rays reveal themselves gradually, from the methods by which they've shaped their franchise to the defenses they play and the countermeasures they devise. There's always something a little different, like lining up seven right-handed hitters Friday night against Los Angeles Angels right-hander Jered Weaver. Contradictory to his career, Weaver has been more effective this season against lefties. By the second inning the Rays had a 2-0 lead, thanks to home runs by a right-hander (B.J. Upton) and a left-hander (Ben Zobrist). By the fourth inning they led, 9-1, Weaver was gone, and Rays righties had seven hits in 14 at-bats against the Angels' ace.

By game's end, the Rays had put up 19 runs in two games against the Angels, who, like the Rays, appear destined to lock up with a handful of others for one of the two American League wild-card berths.

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Evan Longoria returning to his hard-hitting ways is key for the Rays. (AP)

Nineteen runs can be a reasonable week for the Rays, who generally cling to the best pitching staff in the league and then pray for something – anything – to go right with their bats. Their lineup is thinner than a 6-year-old's alibi, and then Evan Longoria was lost to a ruptured hamstring for three months, and on top of that their defense went soft.

All this bad news the Rays view, of course, as opportunity. They are the Richard Simmons of the AL, seeing sunshine wherever they roam, even from within that gloomy grotto they call a home ballpark.

Would it surprise you to learn the Rays have used 10 different cleanup hitters? No? How about that they've designated for assignment three of them?

[Related: Tim Brown: Rays have been victims of three perfect games in three years]

Still to be fettered, however, is from where the Rays intend to drum up the consistent offense that will be required of them the next six weeks. This is a club that has become a walking no-hitter alert. When in the course of three starts Felix Hernandez two-hit the New York Yankees and threw a perfect game against his Rays, Maddon observed that the two starts might be viewed similarly.

"Relatively speaking, two-hitting the Yankees or no-hitting us is probably the same thing, sort of," he said.

The Yankees have outscored the Rays by nearly 100 runs, a number that figures to grow. Indeed, every opponent in the East has outscored them. That's simply an unhappy fact of life for the Rays, or simply one more point of pride for a franchise that allows the heft of the rest of the world to be used against itself.

At least that's the Richard Simmons view of it.

With a quarter of the season remaining, the Rays do not have a player in the league's top 40 in batting, and only one – Zobrist – is in the top 50 in OPS. He's 19th. And yet, only the Yankees and Texas Rangers have more wins, which is sort of where the Rays come down on these sort of observations. As has been established year after year, the Rays aren't them, but they are eminently game. Esoterically game, even.

[Related: Tim Brown: Felix Hernandez extends unprecedented run of perfect games]

So it should come as little surprise that the Rays have a plan to improve their offense in these final six weeks. His name is Longoria. He was their fourth cleanup hitter (following Jeff Keppinger, Matt Joyce and Luke Scott) and is again, after those three months on the disabled list. He returned 11 days ago, has been coached into more of a slow gallop than a full-on run on the basepaths in order to ease the hamstring back into the season, and hasn't yet played third base.

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Rays manager Joe Maddon is an innovative thinker. (AP)

The re-entry has been slow. His stroke's not quite right. The timing is a tick off. The season won't wait. He homered Thursday for the first time since returning and singled as part of Friday's gang-up on Weaver. The Rays need him, and he knows it, and that's just the way things seemingly have always been in St. Petersburg.

"Physically I feel fine," Longoria said, adding, "Where I hope to be in three or four weeks is feeling a lot better."

Take that as you will. He's been told he can't do any more harm to the hamstring, which, he said, "ruptured" in late April.

[Also: Passan Exclusive: MLB to test two different advanced replay systems next week]

"I don't feel anything at the plate," he said. "I'm good out of the box. It's just kind of at the higher end speeds. Later in the year, when we need that, I feel like I can."

Maddon said Longoria should be able to return to third base sometime next week, which coincides with Scott's recovery from a back ailment, and presumably Scott's return to designated hitter. That's one more bat in a lineup that could use a few, the past couple nights in Anaheim notwithstanding.

"We're definitely going to need to put together some good offensive stretches," Longoria said.

That probably starts with him, at least as much as he's capable in the short term. Beyond that, the Rays will be who they are, and that is somehow better than they seem to be, which is what makes them so interesting. You know, esoterically speaking.

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