So maybe you’re wondering how the heck the Tampa Bay Rays became a first-division team, a World Series contender. Well, let’s take a look:
The Rays were over .500 to start the season, taking off in May and June with a 35-20 record. While they cooled off in September, they brought down the White Sox and Red Sox in October to reach this point. And during the season, they beat down the Orioles (15-3) and Blue Jays (11-7), while also taking care of the Rangers (6-3), Athletics (6-3), Angels (6-3) and Marlins (5-1). Teams that beat the Rays? The Indians (2-5) and Yankees (7-11).
What does it all mean? It means the Rays have defeated just about everyone. And how have they won? Pitching.
Of the Rays’ current staff, only one pitcher has an ERA+ under 100 (below average), and that’s Edwin Jackson with a 99. Starting in the rotation, the Rays have had a pretty consistent, healthy bunch, led by Scott Kazmir. He, James Shields, Andy Sonnastine, Matt Garza and Jackson have combined for 64 wins and more than 900 innings. That kind of reliability usually means a lot of victories.
Rays’ starters will give up hits (sometimes close to a hit per inning), but they won’t walk batters. Moreover, they won’t give up too many extra-base hits (for the most part, they surrender one extra-base hit per three innings). Kazmir is the only big strikeout pitcher, but they’ll all get theirs.
The Rays bullpen also was phenomenal in 2008, despite a hodgepodge of names that never quite amounted to much before. The three names to get cozy with are Dan Wheeler, JP Howell and Grant Balfour. Wheeler had a few good seasons as Brad Lidge’s setup man in Houston, and currently plays that role in Tampa. Howell — who never cracked the 5.00 barrier before this season — is a lefty who racks up the strikeouts. Balfour also Ks a bunch, and kept a sub-2.00 ERA all season in a swingman role. To be short: Wheeler is Ryan Madson; Howell is JC Romero; Balfour is Chad Durbin. For the most part. Southpaw Trever Miller has seen a reduced role in the second half, but can and will get lefties out. Consider him Scott Eyre.
The wild card is David Price, the electric 23-year-old lefty who was the Rays’ No. 1 pick last season. He closed out the ALCS with a four-out save. Put the main five pieces of the Rays’ bullpen together, and you have a battle-tested bullpen that has worked unbelievably together in 2008. Look familiar? It sure is.
The Rays will win with their arms, and if they limit teams to less than four runs per game, they’ll come up big. Check this out — when leading after two innings, the Rays are 24-10. After three? 41-11. If you can’t get to the pitching early, they’ll win. (Conversely, if the Rays are down after three, they’re 22-33.) Of course, the Phils are very similar.
The Rays and Phils are also similar when it comes to offense. They’ll hit home runs (180) and strike out a ton (1,224). They’ll swipe bags and not get caught (142 SB, 50 CS). They’ll walk (626). The Rays also rely on the big inning — 92 times they’ve scored three or more runs in an inning, compared to the 88 times the Phils have done it. They’ll get on base via the walk, maybe a hit, then slaughter you with a home run.
And they all hit them. Seven Rays are in double figures, led by Carlos Pena with 31. Rookie Evan Longoria swatted 27 of them, and bench player Eric Hinske had 20 (Hinske was taken off the ALCS roster for Edwin Jackson). Outside of the homers, it’s an excrutiangly balanced lineup. Most of their regulars danced around .270, and besides Pena, everyone produced about 40-80 runs in 2008. They don’t have the big firepower that the Phils boast, but they also don’t have the black holes the Phils can also boast.
The dangerous ones are BJ Upton (.273, .383, .401) and Longoria (.272, .343, .531). The youngsters are two of the best green hitters in the game, so they’ll beat you, but you can also beat them. Each has struck out more than 100 times, with Longoria whiffing once per game. The key is to keep Upton of the bases (44-of-60 SB), and keep Longoria out of run-scoring opportunities.
Like the Phils, the Rays feature a slew of both left-handed hitters (five) and switch hitters (four). Potentially, the Rays bench could have three switch hitters and two lefties, creating a big problem for Phillies pitchers.
Scooping It Up
Defensively the Rays aren’t a bad team, but the left side of the infield remain a potential Achilles heel. Though good, Longoria and shortstop Jason Bartlett combined for 28 errors, with both making crucial blunders in the ALCS. Looking at how Rafael Furcal cost the Dodgers in the NLCS, it’s possible the Rays defense can determine the outcome of a game.
Still, the outfield defense is ace. Carl Crawford is very reliable and quick in left field, and Rocco Baldelli and Gabe Gross are very steady in right. Upton is the star, however, with 16 assists in center field. He did commit seven errors, as his youth can make him prone to some foolishness. But for the most part, he’s purely dynamic.
The Rays won games because they were talented and very healthy on the mound. Their young arms never failed them, and they were able to fill in the gaps offensively with small ball and occasional longballs. In many ways, they’re a younger version of the Phillies — strong pitching, power hitting, a dash of speed. The X-factor in the World Series, then, is age.
Yes, we know the Rays are an average age of 27. And the Phillies are an average age of 30. The Rays won’t toss a 45-year-old pitcher out there. Heck, they’ll only toss one 35-year-old player out there. And that’s a big difference between these two teams. The Rays dominated an older, tired American League East, while the Phils wisdom overtook a younger, greener National League East.
But the Phils aren’t as hurt as the Red Sox, or as old as the Yankees. They’re mainly in the primes of their careers, with the experience coming in role positions. The Rays, meanwhile, aren’t the Marlins and Nationals. They’re not running on adrenaline without much pitching to back them up. These guys can play. These guys are good.