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Rays set to embark on most grueling stretch of season

The next 44 days will certainly be narrative-filled

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

After winning 11 of their last 15 games, the Tampa Bay Rays will begin the most important stretch of the season tonight at home against the resurgent Atlanta Braves.

The stretch entails 42 games in 44 days, a gauntlet that will be no easy task for manager Kevin Cash and the Rays executives in charge of roster construction.

For a deeper look, here is what’s coming down the pipeline for the Rays:

May 8-9: vs. Braves
May 10: Off day
May 11-13: @ Orioles (doubleheader Saturday May 12)
May 14-16: @ Royals
May 17-20: @ Angels
May 21: Off day
May 22-24: vs. Red Sox
May 25-27: vs. Orioles
May 28-31: @ Oakland
Jun 1-3: @ Mariners
June 4: Off day
June 5-6: @ Nationals
June 7-10: vs. Mariners
June 11-13: vs. Blue Jays
June 14-17: @ Yankees
June 18- 20: @ Astros

This kind of stretch requires a great deal of effort to keep fresh arms in the bullpen. With this comes opportunities to call up fresh arms from Triple-A Durham. Whether or not it’s for an extended period of time, expect to see guys like Cody Hall, Adam Kolarek, Ian Gibaut, Vidal Nuno, and Jaime Schultz make their first appearances with the Rays during the stretch. Chih-Wei Hu will likely also see some play time.

The next 44 days will see the Rays make a flurry of transactions. Nathan Eovaldi is slated to make his 2018 debut in late May. Kevin Kiermaier, who’s expected timetable was 8-12 weeks after tearing a ligament in his right thumb April 15, could return to the lineup. Even more intriguing are the near promotions of top prospects Willy Adames and Jake Bauers. Come June 22, the Rays lineup could look much different, and younger, than the one they will trot out tonight.

My projection for the June 22 lineup vs. New York:

C Ramos, Sucre
1B Miller, Bauers
2B Wendle, Robertson
SS Adames, Hechavarria
3B Duffy, Robertson
LF Span, Smith
CF Kiermaier, Smith
RF Bauers, Gomez
DH Cron, Bauers

Who gets demoted or traded when Adames and Bauers are called up is extremely tricky. If it was as easy as dumping Rob Refsnyder or optioning Johnny Field, they’d already be up here.

Why is that? Promoting Bauers is certainly a more likely possibility right now because Refsnyeder is easily replaceable, isn’t a part of the team’s future plans, and isn’t performing to the point where a demotion or waive would be questionable. That would be Bauers’ spot. With Adames, it gets trickier because nearly all of the infielders are playing well and/or out of options.

Whether it’s Refsnyder, Field, Brad Miller, Adeiny Hechavarria, or Joey Wendle, I believe at some point the Rays have to make the hard decision to open up playing time for their future franchise players, building blocks, and guys they are going to market around for the next five years. Nonetheless, the most important thing is to put them in a good position to succeed.

The Rays are playing some exciting and motivating baseball right now. There are a lot of unknowns for what the next 44 days will entail, but one thing appears certain: we won’t be short of any narratives for a Rays team trying to maintain competitiveness in a rebuilding year.