The Tampa Bay Rays have clinched their first franchise playoff berth after a year of upstarts and miracles and a story of the century. They now have their eyes on the big prize: a World Series trophy to bring back to St. Petersburg.
The question now is: Do the Rays pitchers have the stuff to make it all the way?
With most of the success of the team’s amazing (and to the say the least surprising) season attributed to a strong pitching rotation, only an equally strong performance can ensure success in the postseason.
Let’s take a look at the five starters in the rotation, what makes them who they are, and what the team can look for in a postseason start (stats as of 25 Sept).
Scott Kazmir (12-8, 3.49)
Once the undisputed ace of the pitching staff, Kazmir’s numbers have been significantly lower this season, due partially to injury issues, but mostly to an uncharacteristic lack of control, leading to a high number of walks and low number of innings. In only 152.1 innings, Kaz gave up 70 walks to only 166 strikeouts (the most on the team, but far below his total of 239 from a year ago even with missing about five starts).
After a year of unprecedented success in the Rays franchise, Kazmir missed the first month with an injury sustained in the preseason, and since then his nasty slider has been hittable, causing him to lose his strikeout rate.
Still, his fastball remains in the 95 mph range, and he has good stuff...As long as he can compensate for a lack of control. Hitters have found his weakness in throwing too many pitches and have exploited it very well; Kazmir has only pitched past the fifth inning on limited occasions and has an average of only getting through 5.2 innings in his 27 starts.
Postseason Strategy: Kazzy will be needed in the rotation, but the club is yet to know what Kazmir they will see...The Kazmir that two-hit the Red Sox a year ago or the Kazmir that throws 104 pitches in four innings and needs to leave early.
The former will bring great success to the franchise, the latter will put a strain on a bullpen, which shouldn’t be stuck with too much work in October. If he can keep his pitch count down and find the control he needs, Kazmir can win every game.
James Shields (14-8, 3.57)
The powerhouse of the Rays' rotation is making a real case for the ace role, and he is eating up innings like hotdogs to do it. Shieldsy is the ideal pitcher for the opener of a doubleheader; when he pitches, the bullpen knows that they can relax for an extra hour.
In 32 starts, Shields has pitched 214 innings, an average of almost seven innings a game. He has three complete games under his belt this year, two of them for shutouts, and 160 strikeouts is second only to Kazmir on the team.
He has a strong fastball that he couples with a devastating changeup that catches hitters looking. The one weakness that Shields has is that, upon relying on the fastball-changeup, batters can lock onto pitches and he gives up a lot of home runs; his 24 taters against is a team high.
Nevertheless, Shieldsy has tied the franchise record for the most wins in a season since Rolando Arrojo in 1998 and has made great strides as a pitcher gunning for the top spot in the rotation
Postseason Strategy: Give him the ball; the game is in safe hands. The ‘pen will thank you.
Andy Sonnanstine (13-8, 4.27)
Sonny chose a great time to join the Rays, and in only his second year in the franchise, he has shown massive improvement and the potential to become one of the best pitchers in the A.L.
Sonnanstine is known as a fast pitcher (having pitched a just-over-two-hour game, a very fast pitcher at times) and makes contact outs, so his hit count for the year is rather high at 207 hits in 187.2 innings.
Regardless, he has proven to have great success this year, becoming the first of the five starters to hit 10 victories. Sonnanstine’s 34 walks are the lowest in the starting rotation, and he has only given up 13 home runs, making his lethal on the mound to power hitters who rely on walks and taters.
Unfortunately, his hittable pitching style has proven to be his downfall, as teams will lock in on his fastball and curveball in the late innings and string together hits through the air, rather than on the ground. His ERA is second-highest in the starting corps, only to inconsistent Edwin Jackson, but even while he hasn’t won a game since mid-August, he hasn’t lost a game since 27 July.
Postseason Strategy: He can pitch a strong game, but if he starts falling behind, yank him. He has the lowest run support out of all the pitchers in the rotation, and with his contact style, that can mean trouble in big games.
Matt Garza (11-9, 3.66)
Garza, acquired over the offseason by the Rays from the Minnesota Twins, has had little time to impress the Rays faithful, but he has done so with vigor. Starting off the season with a new team can be hard on anyone, especially in your second year, and Garza finished April with an ERA over seven.
In May however, he compiled a 2.52 ERA over six starts and never looked back—including a five-hit, complete-game shutout of the Blue Jays, and a two-hit complete-game shutout of the Rangers.
Garza has been a solid addition to the rotation and has followed James Shields’ victories with one of his own on numerous occasions. His ability to throw many pitches in a game is also a strong point; he has thrown over 110 pitches in five of his 29 starts.
The only thing that keeps Garza from being an All Star pitcher is his rotten luck and inexperience. He ranks among the lowest on the team in runs, hits, OBA, and homers allowed, but his run support is lacking during his games, and teams seem to find ways to string hits together.
Recently, he gave up six runs (five earned) to the Baltimore Orioles in only 3.1 innings; these are the kinds of games that will haunt Garza until he finds a foothold in the majors.
Postseason Strategy: Garza has shown that he has the stuff to make it big and has shut down strong lineups, but his inexperience in the majors will show if he is put in a pressure start, such as a deciding Game Five or Seven.
A stronger pick than Edwin Jackson, but would not be started over Shields or Kazmir just yet.
Edwin Jackson (13-11, 4.37)
Where does one start when trying to describe Jacko?
His inconsistency makes it very difficult to call him a savior or a disgrace. After coming over from the Dodgers' franchise, Jackson played out of the bullpen for the Rays in 2006 before a horrible showing as a starter in 2007, going 5-15 with an ERA of almost six.
Fans were shouting for him to go the way of pitchers like Dewan Brazelton, Seth McClung, and Jae Seo...Out the door and out of Tampa. But with a rocket arm that can hit fastballs at 98 into the eighth inning, skipper Joe Madden has stuck with him.
Whether or not it has been the right choice is debatable. Although much improved over last year's debacle, Jackson has shown inconsistencies in his starts, which irritates fans everywhere.
Within weeks of each other, he pitched seven innings with three earned runs against the Red Sox at Fenway, to pitching two innings and giving up six earned runs against the Yankees.
In his last game, Jackson gave up six runs in the first two innings against the Orioles, only to hunker down and pitch into the seventh inning and pick up the win after a Rays rally in the sixth.
These extreme ups and downs make him hard to pinpoint as a successful pitcher or not, but he surely is a risky start in a tight game. He has yet to completely control his sizzling fastballs and has given up a staggering 76 walks in only 181.1 innings, the lowest of the Rays starters (excluding the month-long injury to Kazmir). Jackson has all the makings of being the next big thing, but it won’t be this year and probably not the next either.
Postseason Strategy: The Rays may want to consider using a four-man rotation until the ALCS or beyond and use Jackson as a long reliever.
As the Tampa Bay Rays wrap up the regular season with their series against the Tigers and that elusive clinch of the A.L. East on the exciting horizon, manager Joe Madden has the arduous task of figuring out his rotation for the postseason.
Without knowing who his first opponent in the ALDS will be for at least another day, he has only his experiences on the field to judge by, but with the numbers that his five starters have put into the books this year, he should have nothing to worry about.