The Tampa Bay Rays, since 2008, have been a consistent contender in the American League East, and this year is no different. The New York Yankees have held a firm grip on the division lead for most of the season, but the streaking Rays—who have won 11 of 13, and 13 of 15— are geared and ready to give them a run for their money.
Last season the Rays sneaked into the playoffs via the wild card on the last day of the season thanks to a late-season push and a September full of miscues by the Boston Red Sox.
It's entirely possible that the Rays may creep their way up the divisional standings this season, and find themselves in the pole position by season's end. Here are some key reasons why.
This past April, Rays third baseman Evan Longoria was batting .329 with an OPS around 1.000 with four homers in 82 at-bats. Coming off a career-worst 2011, Longoria was showing all the signs of busting out with a red-hot start to 2012.
May brought about different news for the former Rookie of the Year, as he found himself on the disabled list for over three months with a hamstring injury.
The team struggled without him, going 41-44 in the 85 games Longoria sat out.
On August 7, Longoria returned. The two-time Gold Glover has been assigned plenty of designated hitter duty by manager Joe Maddon, to keep fresh for a stretch run in the coming weeks.
In his 11 games back, he's showed some rust, batting .244 with 16 strikeouts and two home runs. However there's no reason to believe that Longoria, whose average season computes to 28 home runs and 100 RBI, won't come back strong and play a huge role in Tampa's late-season run to the playoffs again this year.
In September of 2011, Longoria hit .289 with seven home runs and 22 RBI in 27 games. His OBP was .454 with a whopping OPS of 1.043. Longoria has a history of stepping up to the plate in high-leverage situations, and we should expect nothing different this September.
On July 24, the first-place Yankees ran into some rough luck. Just as the Rays were about to have their All-Star third baseman rejoin the team from injury, 37-year-old New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez suffered a fractured hand on a pitch up and in from Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez.
In 94 games prior to the injury, A-Rod had been showing some signs of age, although he did seem to be heating up in the latter weeks. He was batting a modest .276, albeit with a respectable on-base percentage of .358.
The team quickly implemented vet Eric Chavez as the starter at the hot corner, and he provided an offensive spark. From July 25 to August 15, Chavez batted at a .422 clip in 15 games, going 19-for-45 with five homers and 11 RBI.
At the July 31 trade deadline, the team acquired infielder Casey McGehee from the Pirates. Since pulling on the pinstripes for the first time, McGehee has hit only .226 with a homer and driven in five runs in nine games.
McGehee's struggles date back further than this month; this season with Pittsburgh, McGehee hit only .230, and all of last year with Milwaukee the 29-year-old batted a mere .223.
The acquisition of McGehee may not pan out as Yankees brass may have wished, and it would be a safe assumption that Eric Chavez—in his 15th MLB season—won't be able to keep up his sky-high stats.
Rodriguez will be set to return in September, according to the team. Until then it won't be surprising if the Bombers show some signs of weakness at third base.
Joe Maddon took control of Tampa Bay in 2006, then as the Devil Rays manager. After two straight last place finishes in 2006 and 2007, Maddon led the new Rays—a franchise that had never won more than 70 games in any season—to the top of the division in 2008. The '08 Rays finished at 97-65 and took home the American League pennant.
Maddon was honored as Manager of the Year that season, and again in 2011. Since escaping the cellar following the 2007 season, the Rays have won 434 games while dropping only 334: a winning percentage of .565.
Maddon is also known for his quirky managerial tactics, such as batting Carlos Peña leadoff. He also may be the best in the majors at defensive positioning. Here's an excerpt from an article by Peter Keating in the most recent ESPN The Magazine:
Among teams that shift smartly and selectively, such as the Rays, there are benefits. Tampa Bay puts the shift on much more than other clubs; the Rays led MLB with 221 shifts in 2010 and 216 in 2011 and are on track for nearly 700 this season. But Joe Maddon and his staff don't bunch their infielders willy-nilly. They chart their pitchers' tendencies, relentlessly break down opponents' batted-ball patterns and place defenders accordingly. In an April series against the Twins, the Rays shifted against Josh Willingham when Matt Moore pitched to him but not when James Shields or Jeff Niemann did. (Willingham went 1-for-6 against the Rays starters.)
The article also runs through how the Rays have the lowest BABIP (batting average on balls in play) in baseball since 2010—at .275—to demonstrate just how effective Maddon's shifting is.
Yanks manager Joe Girardi has seen great success since taking the reigns of his club in 2008, but also has had the blessing of more talented rosters and over $100 million more in payroll.
Girardi is a manager on one of the league's best teams, but Maddon is one of the league's best managers—a difference that becomes most apparent each October.
The Rays currently sit at second in the east, four-and-a-half games back of New York for the division lead.
The season's final two months could be drastically more difficult for Tampa Bay, however. After this weekend's four-game sweep of Los Angeles at the Big A, the Rays' remaining schedule features games against the scalding hot Athletics (currently 65-55), the Rangers at home and on the road (70-50), the Yankees at Tropicana Field and in the Bronx and trips to Baltimore (66-55) and Chicago (65-55).
The Yankees' toughest games appear to be the two series versus Tampa, three in Chicago, three versus Oakland at The Stadium and two series versus the Orioles. They also get the benefit of seven series versus the lowly Blue Jays, Red Sox, Twins and Indians.
If the Rays falter against their tough opposition, the Yankees just may hold off the pesky Floridians and finish up in first by beating up on their lesser adversaries. Though if Joe Maddon and the boys in blue play their cards right, you can pencil in the Tampa Bay Rays as the 2012 American League East champions.