As May baseball comes to a close, the most common question among most fans is: "What exactly is going on in Tampa?"
I have two words that sum up exactly what is going on in Tampa.
Fun and winning.
They go hand in hand, right? If you’re winning, you’re having fun. In order to have fun, you have to win.
Now after two full months of baseball, the Rays and their fan base are learning just that. Welcome to Major League Baseball, Tampa Bay, we've been waiting for you.
The second question that follows the first, is probably something along the lines of: "Ok, so they've gotten off to a great start...but can they sustain it?"
Can they sustain first-place baseball for an entire year? Probably not; few have and few will. Will they contend for a playoff spot, though? If the rest of the American League's powerhouses of last year continue to stumble over their feet, yes, they will.
I don't think a playoff berth is very likely this year, but is second place out of the question?
Not at all, and here's why.
It has nothing to do with the other teams like the Yankees or the Red Sox. Tampa shouldn't concern themselves with the media monsters of the AL East. The Yankees have problems they don't even know how to fix, Boston is Boston, and Tampa just needs to be Tampa.
Are their flaws in what they've done? Of course, but those flaws are present in a lot of teams.
Most doubters will point to their record on the road compared to their record at home. No team has won as many home games as Tampa Bay has. Granted along with the Cleveland Indians, they've had the most home games in the months of April and May.
Their road record is still not as bad as the records of other American League teams. Consider this; there are only three teams in the AL with road records above .500.
Not only that, Tampa is only one game below .500 in terms of their road record. They've lost seven less games than Boston has and only Los Angeles has lost fewer road games.
So, whatever doubts you have about them and their home/away statistics, put them to bed, because everyone is struggling on the road.
How about the talent on the team? Do those players have staying power, or are they just on a bunch of streaks?
Their bats aren't exactly lighting the world on fire. Only two everyday starters have batting averages over .300. They are B.J. Upton and Dioner Navarro.
Besides Eric Hinske, there really is nobody playing above their normal production, and Hinske is no slouch. He is a former Rookie of the Year, after all.
Sure, they are getting some great production from rookie Evan Longoria, but the Rays are hitting just like they have in the past. Carl Crawford is putting up his normal, run-of-the-mill season. B.J. Upton is carrying over his 2007 stats, and Carlos Pena isn't hitting for a high average, but he leads the team in home runs.
The trio of Cliff Floyd, Johnny Gomes, and Eric Hinske is churning out solid production as noted, and Akinori Iwamura and Jason Bartlett are nice solid pieces to their puzzle.
Alright, so where's it coming from then? Why are the Rays so darn good?
You guessed it. They have pitching, and lots of it.
Their true ace, Scott Kazmir is 4-1 with a 1.50 ERA after starting the year on the disabled list. Their No. 2, James Shields, has shown last year was no fluke, as he leads the team in innings and strikeouts.
The young duo of Matt Garza and Edwin Jackson both have put their talented stuff to work at the same time.
Then, you have their unexpected leader in victories, Andy Sonnanstine. It's a rotation that has solid pitching from one through five. They are in every game, and when you are in every game, you can win any game.
The biggest key in their turnaround has to be their bullpen production. The addition of Troy Percival has solidified the rest of the bunch and given them a legitimate closer. We should see how well they handle him being on the disabled list.
Dan Wheeler has re-established himself as a solid set-up arm, and J.P. Howell, a converted starter, has actually benefited from the move to the bullpen.
You look at teams in the previous years that made "surprising leaps" in terms of production and the standings. Cleveland in 2007, Minnesota and Detroit in 2006, Chicago when they won the World Series in 2005, and any time Oakland shocked you. They did it all with pitching, and Tampa has just that.
So, should Tampa fear the Yankees, and their late season charge?
No, the Yankees should fear the Rays and their legitimate staying power.
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