Rays top offseason priority: consistent offense


Rays top offseason priority: consistent offense

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) Frustrating, yet also gratifying.

The Tampa Bay Rays don't have to dig very deep to determine what went wrong in a season that ended much earlier than manager Joe Maddon and his players expected.

Despite superb - and in some cases historic - pitching, an inconsistent offense undermined the team's chances of getting back to the playoffs.

The Rays won 12 of their final 14 games to finish with 90 wins, joining the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers as the only clubs with at least that many victories each of the past three seasons.

And while that's not too shabby, finishing third in the AL East and failing to earn their fourth postseason berth in five years was a major disappointment for a team that played as well as any contender down the stretch.

``I really felt like we could play with anybody right now,'' Maddon said. ``I felt that all year, but especially right now. We just ran out of games. We ran out of time because truly we are one of the best teams out there right now, and truly we could have contended for the World Series title. I honestly believe that.

``It's unfortunate it unraveled the way it did.''

Led by 20-game winner David Price, the Rays pitching staff led the major leagues with a 3.19 ERA and .228 opponent's batting average, while also setting an AL record for strikeouts with 1,383. Closer Fernando Rodney anchored the league's best bullpen (2.88 ERA, .208 opponent's average) with a franchise-best 48 saves. His 0.60 ERA set a major league record for a reliever working a minimum of 50 innings.

On the flip side, three-time All-Star Evan Longoria missed 85 games with a partially torn hamstring, and the offense struggled to do its part while he was out. The third baseman's absence also made a difference defensively, which is another area where Maddon felt the team underperformed.

The Rays went 47-27 in games Longoria started. They were 43-45 when he didn't play, including 41-44 while he was on the disabled list from May 1 to Aug. 7.

``There's a lot of things that went awry early in the year and a lot of it was linked to Longo,'' Maddon said.

``On the field we were not very good defensively in the first half. We were offensively challenged for a lot of the season, but ... that's how the major league season works,'' the manager added. ``I mean, everybody can talk about the games that they thought they would have, or should have, won had they done something differently, or got a hit or made a play or whatever. Everybody goes through that same moment. So as much as you can lament on that particular thought, that doesn't really get you anything.''

The Rays hit .240 as a team, joining the AL West champion Oakland Athletics (.238) as the first team since the 1972 World Series champion A's to win at least 90 games and bat .240 or less. They drew a major league-high 571 walks, but also struck out 1,323 times - third-highest in AL history.

Centerfielder B.J. Upton, who will become a free agent this winter and has likely played his last game for Tampa Bay, led the club with a career-best 28 home runs and 78 RBI's.

But the team's two biggest offseason acquisitions - first baseman Carlos Pena and designated hitter Luke Scott - failed to add much to the offense.

Pena batted .197 with 19 homers, 61 RBIs and 182 strikeouts in 160 games. Scott was slowed by injuries and spent a month on the disabled list, finishing at .229 with 14 homers and 55 RBI's in 96 games.

``I'll be honest with you. I've lost sleep over it. It's something that I have heavy heart about it,'' Scott said of the club's offensive woes. ``It's frustrating to put it lightly.''

The Rays went 21-27 in one-run games and lost 1-0 five times after Aug. 1. Despite going 12-2 down the stretch, they only gained three games in the race for a wild card playoff spot.

``Sometimes you're not good enough. We are good enough. This year we just didn't win enough games. It's unfortunate,'' Maddon said. ``Nevertheless ... winning 12 of the last 14 is pretty impressive. We did not deserve to be there this year, but it really should serve as motivation and incentive for next year.''

In addition to Upton, the Rays could lose Pena, infielder Jeff Keppinger and relievers J.P. Howell, Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta to free agency. The team has a $6 million option on Scott, and executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman didn't provide any clues Thursday on the prospects of Scott returning in 2013.

``There definitely will be turnover,'' Friedman said. ``Our goal is to construct a better roster for next year. What that will be, I don't know.''

What also remains to be seen is whether the Rays will try to bolster the offense by parting with some of the surplus of starting pitching in the organization.

The budget-minded Rays have one of the deepest five-man rotations in baseball, and have at least three other young pitchers with major league experience who have promising futures.

Friedman said what the Rays won't do is make any deals just for the sake of acquiring some bats.

``It was a strange year in a lot of ways, and people focused a lot on the offense - and rightfully so,'' Friedman said. ``It's something we're going to spend a lot of time thinking about and discussing and analyzing because you don't want to have a knee-jerk reaction and do something. ... We'd love to have an elite pitching staff and elite offense, but that's difficult to do.''

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Stanley Cup Final 2018: Players to watch

Stanley Cup Final 2018: Players to watch

It doesn't take an expert to tell you players like Alex Ovechkin or Marc-Andre Fleury will play a big role in the Stanley Cup Final.

Both the Washington Capitals and Vegas Golden Knights will need their best players to be at their best to take home the Cup. But who will be the unexpected heroes? Who are the players no one is talking about who will have a big hand in their team's success or defeat in this series?

Here are five players you should be watching in the Stanley Cup:

1. Devante Smith-Pelly: Smith-Pelly had seven goals in 79 games in the regular season. Now he has four goals in just 19 playoff games.

Smith-Pelly has been one of those unlikely playoff heroes for the Caps this postseason with very timely performances such as scoring the series-clinching goal in Game 6 against the Columbus Blue and scoring the goal that put the game away in Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

The physical play has really stood out as well for him, which fits well on the fourth line role he has settled back into now that the team is healthy again. Barry Trotz tried moving him to the top line in the absence of Tom Wilson and the results weren't great. He is best suited for the role he currently has and that will allow him to thrive.

2. James Neal: Neal came up just short of the Stanley Cup last season as a member of the Nashville Predators. He totaled nine points in 22 games during that run, a number he has already matched in just 15 games this postseason.

There are very few players on either team that boast the kind of postseason experience Neal has. He will be leaned upon this series for his leadership.

Vegas is a young team and their unprecedented success in the playoffs may make this feel like the first run of many for the Golden Knights, but not for Neal who is on the last year of his contract and came tantalizingly close to the Cup last season. He will play like there is no tomorrow because, for him, there may not be in Vegas.

3. Andre Burakovsky: Burakovsky was one of the heroes of Game 7 with two goals to put away the Tampa Bay Lightning. That marked just the latest peak in a career full of peaks and valleys for the young winger. Just two games before, Burakovsky was a healthy scratch and spoke to the media about his plans to speak with a sports psychologist in the offseason.

The talent is there and it certainly appears that the injury that kept him out earlier in the playoffs is largely behind him. Burakovsky’s issues have always been mainly between the ears. In a series against a fast team with strong depth, he can be an absolutely critical piece for the Caps. Hopefully, his Game 7 performance gave him the confidence he needs to continue to be effective.

4. Ryan Reaves: Vegas acquired both Reaves and Tomas Tatar around the trade deadline. If I were to tell you that through three rounds of the playoffs, both players were healthy, had played the same number of games (6) and had the same number of points (1), you’d think I was crazy. Yet, here we are.

Reaves was largely an afterthought in a complicated trade between Vegas, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Ottawa Senators, but he has carved a nice role for himself on the Golden Knights’ fourth line and even scored the goal that sent Vegas to the Stanley Cup Final against the Winnipeg Jets.

Reaves is also an agitator on the ice, but what do the Caps do against a player like that when their normal fighter plays on the top line? We may see Reaves and Wilson come to blows this series, but it won't be very often because that is a bad tradeoff for the Caps.

5. Brooks Orpik: The elder statesman of the blue line, Orpik is the only player on the Caps with a Stanley Cup to his name and is the only one who has any idea what this experience is going to be like for the team.

Orpik is very diligent about keeping in shape which has allowed him to play in 81 games this season and all 19 playoff games despite being 37 years old, but you do have to wonder how much is left in the tank. Despite being the favorite whipping boy for the proponents of analytics, his physical play has been effective this postseason. The focus he placed on the skating in the offseason has paid dividends so far in matchups against the speedy Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning, but the Golden Knights will be the fastest team they have played yet. There is no denying Orpik is much more suited towards a physical style of game. Wil he continue to be effective or will Vegas exploit the Caps' third defensive pairing?


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Capitals vs. Golden Knights Game 1 Stanley Cup Final: Date, Time, TV Channel, Livestrem

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Capitals vs. Golden Knights Game 1 Stanley Cup Final: Date, Time, TV Channel, Livestrem

The wait is finally over. 

After two decades, the Capitals are back in the Stanley Cup Final. 

After a convincing 4-0 win in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, the Capitals are in Vegas to take on the Golden Knights. They'll be facing off against a handful of familiar names, with former Caps GM George McPhee, fan favorite Nate Schmidt, and ex-Penguins goalie Marc Andre-Fluery are just a few of the names that'll be suiting up for Vegas. 

What will the X-factors in the series be? Who will be the unexpected heroes of Game 1? The action is almost underway, and here are all the details you need to know.

Game 1 Capitals at Golden Knights
Date: Monday, May 28
Time: 8:00 p.m. ET
Location: T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, NV.
TV Channel: NBCSN 
How To Watch Live StreamingNBC Sports App Live Stream
Radio: Capitals Radio Network (106.7 FM)


Game 1 of the Capitals-Golden Knights 2018 NHL Stanley Cup Final takes place on Monday, May 28 at 8:00 p.m. at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, NV.


The TV broadcast of Game 1 between the Capitals and Golden Knights is on NBC. Capitals pre- and postgame coverage takes place on NBC Sports Washington. (NBC Sports Washington channel Finder)

5:00 p.m. — Caps Cup Preview
6:00 p.m. — Caps GameDay Live
6:30 p.m. — Caps Face Off
7:00 p.m. — Caps GameTime
8:00 p.m. — Game 1 Capitals vs. Golden Knights
10:30 p.m. — Caps Extra
11:30 p.m. — Caps Overtime


Game 1 of the 2018 Stanley Cup Final between the Capitals and Golden Knights is available for online stream on the NBC Sports App. Click here for the NBC Sports live stream page.


Use the comment section below to discuss the game action with other Capitals fans. 

For all the latest Caps coverage, follow Capitals Insider Tarik El-Bashir, Capitals digital producer JJ Regan and the NBC Sports Capitals account on Twitter. Be sure check out our Capitals page and NBC Sports Washington's Facebook page.