Rays Positioned for Repeat : Why Stop Believing?

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Rays Positioned for Repeat : Why Stop Believing?
(Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

The Tampa Rays are positioned to take the American League East. 

They’ve been through their injuries. The Rays have played without BJ Upton, Evan Longoria, Jason Bartlett, Akinori Iwamura, Shawn Riggans, Pat Burrell, Troy Percival, Scott Kazmir, Chad Bradford, Jason Isringhausen, and Brian Shouse. 

Tampa Bay lost its replacement center fielder before the season even started, and they are only six games back.

Some of those names on the injured list may not sound intimidating, but when you’re using a bullpen by committee, and four members of the committee are wounded, it affects the plan.

No matter what anyone tries to convince you of, no team has made it through more this partial season than the Rays.

On June 20, 2008, the Rays stood barely behind the mighty Boston Red Sox and barely ahead of the mighty New York Yankees.

It just couldn’t happen, but it did. The only people who needed to believe were the players on the field. 

On June 20, 2009, the Rays were still in striking distance of both the Red Sox and the Yankees. 

Last year’s Rays had Scot Kazmir on the disabled list in June, and no bullpen to speak of.

This season, the Rays again have Kazmir on the disabled list. But the list goes even deeper. The Rays lost three quarters of their infield, and stayed above .500. 

Tampa Bay is a team that can overcome the big, bad bullies of the American League East.

The Red Sox and the Yankees are older. Injuries will come. Fatigue will come. Just ask Mike Lowell and Alex Rodriguez

Despite the Red Sox fans protests that they’ve had their share of injuries, they really haven’t.

Lowell, Varitek, and Ortiz haven’t been injured as much as they’ve been slowed by father time. J.D. Drew is off and on, and Julio Lugo isn’t what he was when he was back in Tampa. 

They Rays have the league's best pitching.

The Tampa starting rotation compares with the more publicized Red Sox group, especially now that Dice-K’s arm has fallen off.

Kazmir made a rehab start on June 22. Call me crazy, but while Scot’s stuff was done after returning from injury last year, I think it forced him to pitch to contact more. The same could be said for Edwin Jackson last year.

This season, I expect both Jeff Niemann and David Price to learn the same lesson. 

The bullpen is settling in, and one or two of those pitchers could come up big. There’s a lot of depth out there, and the Rays proved last season that depth and being able to play matchups can mean as much as a Mariano Rivera or Jonathon Papelbon.

The Rays have the defense.

This is the biggest reason Tampa Bay will win the AL East. Everyone has been willing to cite their dramatic fall to the bottom third of the AL without citing the loss of three-fourths of the infield.

No outfield covers more ground than the one that has Carl Crawford in Left Field and BJ Upton in Center Field. Gross is also solid in Right Field. 

Jason Bartlett is back, and he’s the best in the American League today.

Ben Zobrist seems to have found a position, much like minor league shortstop Ryne Sandberg once did. 

Yes, I’ll be the first to make the comparison. They are similar physically, had similar stats in minor-league ball, had a similar reaction when told to swing harder.

Ben Zobrist reminds me of Ryne Sandberg. I pity the rest of baseball that didn’t pick up on that three years ago when I did. 

Evan Longoria is the best in the game already at third base.

Catchers Dioner Navarro and Michel Hernandez are as good defensively as any in the East.

In short, this team can pick it. Once those two young starters realize that and pitch to contact, anything can happen.

The Rays have the offense.

With all those injuries, the Rays sit third in batting average and home runs, second in slugging, hits and total bases, and first in runs and stolen bases.

Imagine where they would be if they healthy.

Six games better? More?

Offense is a bonus. Pitching and Defense win championships.  

So let the all the fans around the league talk about the over-priced, over-hyped members of their squads. 

I picked the Rays at the start of the year, and I’m standing by that pick.

They are the best team in the American League East. That's a product of trust in the manager and the coaching staff. 

It’s only six games. Six games for a team that has already had a season’s worth of injuries is nothing. 

The Rays are a team that learned how to win last year, a team that can beat you with speed, or power or pitching or defense.

For that team, six games is definitely doable. 

I believe. 

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