When the Tampa Bay Rays beat the New York Yankees 3-1 on Monday, it wasn’t just the latest victory in what is becoming a one-sided rivalry in the AL East. It also marked the end of a month in which Tampa Bay went 22-6 to claim the best record in the majors.

Tampa Bay Rays record
The Tampa Bay Rays own the best record in baseball after winning 16 of their last 17 games. (Image: Mike Ehrmann/Getty)

The Rays have now won 16 of their last 17 games to get to 35-20 on the year.

Tampa Bay enjoys ‘special month’

Tampa Bay sits two games ahead of the Boston Red Sox atop the AL East, with the Yankees a surprising 5.5 games back after losing four straight.

“A pretty special month for us,” Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash said on Tuesday. “We were hovering around that .500 mark for a while there, and then the guys did their thing. It’s all come together. We’re playing really, really well.”

The Rays aren’t as good as this recent run would suggest, just like they were always better than their sluggish .500 start to the year. But the defending AL champions came into the year expecting to compete for a World Series title again, and are finally living up to those expectations.

The May run included a number of outstanding performances on both sides of the game. Austin Meadows hit .258 and posted a .976 OPS during the month, driving in 28 RBIs. Meanwhile, the 41-year-old Rich Hill went 3-1 with a 0.78 ERA in May.

A narrative has emerged among some baseball writers that Tampa Bay accomplished this by doing the little things. Writing for NJ.com, Randy Miller quoted Yankees’ third baseman Miguel Andujar as saying “They have their way to play baseball and we have our way to play baseball,” before citing the Yankees’ “swing-for-the-fences mentality” as one reason why the Rays have an 18-7 record over their last 25 games against New York.

The epitome of modern baseball

That take ignores the fact that Tampa Bay embraces that swing away approach as much as any other team in the majors. The Rays lead the league in strikeouts and are ninth in home runs. They’re hitting just .231 – below the league average – but as scoring 4.96 runs per game, good for fifth in the MLB. Tampa Bay puts the ball in play less than any team in the majors.

In other words, while strikeouts and low batting averages may have become an entertainment problem for baseball, they’re not actually a problem for offenses. And crafty teams like the Rays are taking full advantage of that fact to put together winning teams on a budget.

Bookmakers are buying into Tampa Bay as well. The Rays now stand as the +135 favorites to win the AL East at FanDuel Sportsbook, ahead of the Yankees (+175), Red Sox (+400), and Toronto Blue Jays (+650). Tampa Bay is also the sixth choice to win the World Series at +1300 – though the Yankees (+850) remain ahead of them, suggesting oddsmakers still think the Bronx Bombers will have something to say about the current state of things come October.