Tampa Bay Rays Have the Look of a World Series Contender

Jim FolsomContributorApril 22, 2010

BOSTON - APRIL 16:  Evan Longoria #3  of the Tampa Bay Rays gets a hit against the Boston Red Sox on April 16, 2010 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

Don't look now Red Sox fans and Yankees fans, but you've got some competition. The Tampa Bay Rays are back.

Baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint. Two weeks do not make a season. But, watching the Rays first two weeks, one would have to say they have that look. That look of a team on a mission. They are pitching. They are hitting. They are playing defense. They are confident that they are going to win no matter the situation.

Take the four-game series at Fenway Park this past weekend. They start off on Friday facing Josh Beckett. It's cold. It's raining. Not exactly ideal conditions for a Florida team who plays in a dome.

After the top of the ninth, the rains really come down. The game is suspended with the score tied 1-1. It is decided that the game will be picked up at that point on Saturday before the regularly scheduled game. So the Rays have all day to stare at defeat. Because if Boston scores a run, that's it. The Rays can't answer.

The Rays get the Sox out in the ninth on Saturday and the game goes to extra innings. In the 11th, Lance Cormier, maybe the Rays last pitcher on the depth chart, is on the mound.

A base hit and a walk to start the inning make it look bleak. But then a double play grounder is hit to baseball's next big superstar, third baseman Evan Longoria. He boots it. Bases loaded, nobody out, Big Papi coming to the plate. Game over. Or is it?

Rays manager Joe Maddon strolls out of the dugout. Everyone is sure a new pitcher is coming in.

But Maddon sticks with Cormier.

He gets Big Papi to ground the ball to first. The first baseman, Carlos Pena, throws home for the force out. Then Longoria fields the next ball to his right on a hard shot that looks like it's headed to left field. He steps on third, and throws to first for the double play.

Longoria then leads off the 12th with a base hit. Pat Burrell, who has mostly disappointed since coming to Tampa bay after helping Philadelphia beat the Rays in the '08 World Series, then hits a bomb over the Green Monster. The Rays win 3-1.

Then in the regularly scheduled game, Burrell hits a bases loaded double in the first inning clearing the bases and giving the Rays a 4-0 lead. In two innings, Burrell had five RBIs. 

Longoria comes up in the sixth and hits a towering shot well over the Monster to make it a 6-1 ball game.

But the Sox come back. In the seventh they chase off starter James Shields with a two-run homer by Dustin Pedroia. Then Kevin Youkilis hits another one to make it a 6-5 game. The Sox no doubt are thinking about their comeback in game five of the '08 ALCS against the Rays.

But there would be no such comeback this time. The Rays bullpen shuts the door. New closer Rafael Soriano gets the Sox out in order in the ninth. Rays win.

The Rays then go on to sweep the four game series. Games three and four are never even close. BJ Upton was hitting bombs and catching balls that looked like sure doubles. Carl Crawford played left field like he was the second coming of Yaz. Jason Bartlett was constantly on base. And the pitching was stellar.

The Rays left Boston on a seven game win streak, all on the road, and baseball's best record at 10-3. If they stay healthy, they have a five-man rotation of young arms that can all bring the heat. All five are capable of shutting down any offense.

With these arms, the bullpen shouldn't have too much work. The defense is outstanding. With Crawford, Upton, and Ben Zobrist in the outfield, they catch just about everything.

The offense is explosive. Longoria, Upton, Crawford, Pena, and Burrell are all long ball threats. With Bartlett, Upton, and Crawford, there is plenty of base stealing going on too. There just does not seem to be any weakness on this team. With Soriano, the last trouble spot—the closer—has been addressed.

The last obstacle once all the pieces are put together for a young contender, is attitude. How does the team do when it looks like things have the potential to go south? How about this answer?

The Rays leave Fenway to go to Chicago. They lose on Tuesday in a low scoring game, 3-1. On Wednesday, the Rays face Mark Buerhle who last year pitched a perfect game against them. The Rays have struggled against lefties this year coming in to the game with a .188 team average.

It doesn't look too good, right? Wrong. Rays win 12-0. This is with starter No. 5, Wade Davis pitching.

That is a team with that look about it. A team that knows it has it all. Watch out Yanks. The Rays are coming.