Tampa Bay Rays: Pitching and Fielding Keeping Team in First Place

Steven WynockerCorrespondent IMay 15, 2008

If you would have told me that Carlos Pena would be batting .210 and the Rays were not scoring runs, I would have said that this is going to be another long year for the Tampa Bay area and Rays baseball.

Instead, the pitching is the main story of the 24-17 first-place Tampa Bay Rays. For years, pitching was the Achilles heal of the Rays' success, and hitting was the powerpoint, teasing Rays fans that we could actually compete in the tough AL East.

This year the starting rotation is going deep in the game, and handing the ball over to one of the top bullpens in baseball. That's right, the Rays bullpen, backed by set-up man Dan Wheeler and veteran closer Troy Percival, are holding the leads and getting the starters their much deserved victories.

The starting rotation includes one of the best one-two punches in baseball with Scott Kazmir and James Shields. Andy Sonnanstine is 5-1, and Matt Garza and Edwin Jackson are both evolving into superstars of the future. Can this rotation carry the Rays to a playoff run? The early success should speak for itself.

James Shields has pitched two complete-game shutouts of the one-hit and two-hit varieties in the first month-and-a-half, and is showing the American League that he has the most bottom-dropping changeup in baseball. He has virtually been the team's go-to guy for the last season-and-a-half. He throws a great curveball to get the count in his favor, and his fastball and changeup are so difficult to pick up, especially when he gets the changeup down in the zone.

Scott Kazmir has an explosive two-seam fastball that runs away from right-handed hitters. His slider has been his out pitch the past few years, and lefties just can't pick it up. He is also developing a decent changeup to go along with his top two pitches.

Andy Sonnanstine pitches like a lefty, with a ball that cuts, dips, dives, and does everything to miss the bat. He works fast, and keeps the defense in the game with his strike-throwing ability. What you see is what you get with Sonny, and that is going just fine for the Rays and his early-season success.

Edwin Jackson fires away at you with his mid 90s fastball. His slider disappears when he gets ahead in the count. He is also working on a curveball and a changeup to complement his two top pitches. He is really maturing and learning how to "pitch" the ball.

Matt Garza has improved after each start this season. After a minor DL setback, he is showing his great promise to be a young superstar in the making. His two-seam fastball is his main pitch that runs in on the hands of righties. He also throws a pretty good curve to counteract the fastball.

The bullpen is holding leads and saving games with the veteran leaders of Trevor Miller, Dan Wheeler, and Troy Percival. J.P. Howell has three wins in long relief, and has been one of the biggest reasons for the early success.

Another reason for the team's success has been the team defense. B.J. Upton and Carl Crawford cover a lot of ground in the outfield, but the infield has been the most impressive improvement.

The middle infield, double-play combo of Jason Bartlett and Akinori Iwamura has been fun to watch early on. They are becoming great partners, and are the best of friends as Bartlett is learning Japanese and hanging out with Akinori as much as possible. Iwamura has made a great transition from third base to second base. He makes the turn like a natural, and covers the ground as good as any second baseman around.

Evan Longoria has been just as impressive with his glove and arm as he has with his bat.

Carlos Pena is one of the most underrated, fielding first-basemen. Not many balls get by him down the line, as he saves several doubles a week.

The Rays offense has been very minimal this year, but is starting to turn around. Dioner Navarro has been on fire since last year's All-Star break, and is batting .380 this year. Akinori Iwamura was really struggling in the leadoff spot, but in the month of May has really heated up.

Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton are both hitting and running like they should, but the biggest disappointment has been Carlos Pena at the plate. While Pena has eight jacks this year, most of them came in the first couple of weeks, and his average is floating just up above the Mendoza line. Cliff Floyd and Eric Hinske have been impressive additions this year. We can only hope that Floyd can stay healthy for the rest of the season.

When the hitting picks up, this team will really be fun to watch. Their pitching and fielding has kept them in the games, and the hitting is starting to come around. American League East beware, the Rays are for real this year!

Go Rays!