Return of Injured Rays Can Provide 2nd Half Boost: Fan's Look

Yahoo Contributor Network

As the Tampa Bay Rays move into baseball's second half, the team appears ready to contend for a wildcard bid. With a respectable 45-41 record, the Rays are in 3rd place in the AL East. Though sitting 7.5 games from the division-leading New York Yankees, Tampa Bay remains only 1/2 game behind the Baltimore Orioles for the final post-season spot.

Although the Rays are in prime position for entry to the playoffs, getting there will bring considerable challenges. Despite the Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers underachieving, both possess experienced players and deep pockets to pursue comebacks. In particular, the division rival Red Sox will soon benefit from the additions of former All-Stars Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford, and Andrew Bailey.

Yet, the silver lining to Tampa Bay's own setbacks is that the club likewise anticipates substantial aid from the return of key contributors. Here is a look at the Rays' injuries and when help may be expected.

Evan Longoria: After hitting a dazzling .329 with 4 homers and 19 RBI in 23 games, the Rays lost their offensive stalwart to a torn hamstring during an April 30th game against the Seattle Mariners. Expected to be sidelined for 6-8 weeks, Longoria has already missed 63 games. Matters grew worse when the 3 time All-Star re-injured the hamstring during a June rehab assignment with the Durham Bulls. Hoping to avoid surgery, Longo paused the recuperation, and even gingerly walked the ESPY red carpet. Though the Rays expect his return, they have declined to set a timetable. A mid-August return seems the best-case scenario, but frustrated fans wonder if his season may be lost.

Matt Joyce: In this writer's mid-season Rays' report card, Joyce was named the team's best hitter during the first half. Though the outfielder missed the past 3 weeks with a strained oblique, the lefty still served as the most consistent bat in a lineup that often turns ice cold. Like Longoria, Joyce also experienced a setback from discomfort in his lower back during a rehab assignment. After only a pair of at bats for Durham, the Rays were recently forced to shut down the left-handed hitter and his timetable is pushed back at least 2 weeks.

Jeff Niemann: After winning the 5th starting spot, Niemann pitched effectively with 2 wins in his first 6 starts and a respectable 3.38 ERA. He then suffered a bad break, as a batted ball struck his leg during a May 14th game against the Toronto Blue Jays. Niemann fractured his fibula and was placed on the dreaded 60 day disabled list. Alex Cobb took the tall hurler's spot, but has looked shaky with a 4.89 ERA. Niemann is mere days away from eligibility to come off the DL and even participated in a team workout following the All-Star break. Having missed substantial time, however, the 29 year-old will require multiple minors league starts to find his form before a potential return in August.

Sam Fuld: The Rays' final major injury bears the most optimistic news. After difficulties swinging in spring training, Fuld underwent wrist surgery on April 3rd and was placed on the 60 day DL. Following 3 months of rest, last year's Cinderella story began a rehab assignment with the nearby Charlotte Stone Crabs on July 7th. In 4 Florida State League games, the 30 year-old has only 1 hit in 10 at bats. However, reports have Fuld looking healthy in playing both CF and LF. The versatile lefty could soon provide a valuable bat to manager Joe Maddon's thin bench.

Others: 26 year-old prospect Brandon Guyer was lost for the year to shoulder surgery in May. The injury hinders his long-term chances of finding a role with the club. Backup catcher Robinson Chirinos has been sidelined by a concussion since spring training and appears unlikely to contribute in 2012. Brandon Allen delivered a game winning homer for the Rays in April, but was disabled in May with a quadriceps injury. When healed, the slugger was optioned to the minors, where he has become Durham's most productive hitter. He could be added to the mix if the lineup does not improve. Finally, though uninjured, former Cleveland Indian Ryan Garko is equally hungry to get back to the majors. After an unsuccessful stint in Korea, the Rays signed the free agent and assigned him to the Montgomery Biscuits. Garko has since feasted on Double A pitching with a .330 average, 6 HR, and 30 RBI in 49 games. Stranger things have occurred than seeing an experienced hitter find his way onto the expanded September rosters.

Sources:

Yahoo! Sports, TBO.com, MLB.com, Milb.com, Cbssports.com.

More by Jeff Briscoe from Yahoo! Contributor Network:

Tampa Bay Rays Mid-Season Report Card

Jeff Briscoe is a regular contributor for the Yahoo! Contributor Network and a follower of the Tampa Bay Rays . He talks Rays' baseball and more on The Sports Train radio show in Southwest Florida.

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