They’re alive! So, was that a brief respite, or are Rays hitters back?

ST. PETERSBURG — We do not know what Taj Bradley or Shane Baz will look like when their rehab assignments end.

We do not know how many innings the Rays will get out of Jeffrey Springs and Drew Rasmussen this season. We do not know if Ben Rortvedt can be an everyday catcher in the big leagues, nor do we know when Junior Caminero will get promoted from Triple A.

The season is long and the variables are many. There is one thing, however, we know for sure:

If Randy Arozarena, Yandy Diaz and Harold Ramirez do not heat up, 2024 will be a bust in Tampa Bay.

The season’s first month has taught us that much.

“There are four good teams ahead of us. We’ve got to start doing some really good things at this point,” manager Kevin Cash said. “I don’t think we can get too far ahead of ourselves, and say we need to be here in two weeks’ time. We just need to play better baseball tonight.

“The realistic thing is let’s just start working to get back to (normal). And, in the meantime, start winning some more games with those guys. I mean, there’s no denying we need Yandy, Randy and Harold.”

The Rays have famously survived injuries to their starting rotation in the past. And no matter how bad their bullpen looks in April or May, it is invariably repaired by the time summer rolls around. Even their early-season defensive lapses will likely be corrected.

But there is no way this lineup survives without that core group of hitters.

Which is why it was so critical to see Diaz, Arozarena and Ramirez go 6-for-12 with three walks and one strikeout in a series-opening 10-8 win against the Mets Friday night. It’s why Diaz’s emphatic fist pumps after a second-inning RBI single resonated in the Rays dugout.

“It’s been a while since I’ve been productive,” said Diaz, via team interpreter Manny Navarro. “So I was just happy I was able to produce it.”

Because of payroll limitations, the Rays have never built their lineup around a couple of superstars. Instead, their advantage over most teams is their ability to blend enough complementary pieces to create a sum far greater than the individual parts would indicate.

Yet, there has to be some thump. Some intimidation. Some bats at the top of the order that make opposing pitchers uncomfortable.

The Rays began this season without Wander Franco, due to his legal problems. They began without Josh Lowe, and soon lost Brandon Lowe, because of oblique injuries. Suddenly, the pressure to perform was turned up on Arozarena, Diaz and Ramirez.

“I try to remind them that the reason people are talking about a slump is because of their expectations,” hitting coach Chad Mottola said. “We have become a team that people expect stuff out of. Before, it was the underdog mentality: Let’s sneak up on people. That doesn’t exist anymore, and that’s a compliment to them because the expectations are so much higher.

“It’s a good way to remind them that expectations are a good thing. We’re expecting you to do this because we’ve seen you do it in the past.”

When the homestand began, Ramirez, Diaz and Arozarena all had an OPS below .600.

A year ago, Diaz was at .932, Ramirez was .813 and Arozarena was .789.

“Everyone knows I’ve struggled a little bit at the beginning of the year,” Arozarena said via Navarro. “You’ve just got to keep working, it’s a difficult game. As long as I keep my head up, I think the results will eventually come.”

So how do you help hitters in a slump? Analyze? Sympathize? Encourage? Ignore?

“Probably a little bit of all of that,” Cash said. “Especially when it’s gone on for a solid month.

“We’ve left them alone, we’ve poured information at them, we’ve gone back to ‘Leave me alone.’ It’s eating at them, I know. Yandy hasn’t taken (batting practice) on the field in three years, and he was out there hitting on the field in Milwaukee. He cares; they all care.”

The problem, of course, is that it’s early May. A slump can’t be hidden in a greater body of work. You walk up to the plate, and the scoreboard mocks you with the ugly reminders of your slow start.

On the other hand, fewer at-bats means recovery time can also be quick. Ramirez had three hits on Friday night and his average climbed from .255 to .270. Three walks and a homer for Arozarena pushed his OPS from a ghastly .455 to .507.

“You’ve got to believe in the track record,” Cash said. “Believe in the track record and also appreciate that, while it’s been challenging for them individually, we can certainly still win games as they’re building themselves back to the version of who they have been for four or five years.”

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