October is almost here, we are only a week away from the playoffs, and the Tampa Bay Rays, for the first time in history, will be attending. Not only did the Rays make the playoffs for the first time in their franchise history, but they did it in style by winning the A.L. East.
After losing a total of 96 games last season, and so far winning 96 games this season, the question comes up; What has been the difference maker for this ball club?
The difference maker beyond a shadow of a doubt has been their pitching.
Not only has 1.) Scott Kazmir, 2.) James Shields 3.) Matt Garza, 4.) Andy Sonnanstine and 5.) Edwin Jackson
All five starters pitched extremely well, but so too has the bullpen.
With the addition of a true closer in Troy Percival and relievers Dan Wheeler and J.P. Howell, the Rays have one of the best bullpens in the game. Percival has really given the Rays' bullpen a whole new dimension, even though he has been a bit injury plagued. He has been successful in bringing a shutdown mentality into the ninth inning of ball games.
With a steep 4.63 ERA, he still has been able to save 28 games, even while missing significant time due to injury.
Wheeler, after being acquired in 2007, which was a deal that sent Ty Wigginton to the Astros, has pitched as advertised with a solid 3.17 ERA and 17 saves. Needless to say, the Wheeler and Percival tandem has been great for the Rays, saving a total of 45 games and winning a total of seven games.
Out of all the new acquisitions and surprises this year, J.P. Howell has been right in the middle of things. Howell was originally a starter, but just didn't cut it. He was then confidently converted into a middle reliever by Joe Madden, where he has shined ever since.
When needed, Howell has come up very big for the Rays in middle innings, pitching with an outstanding 2.22 ERA and 6-1 record. With the three of these guys ready to pitch late in games, it makes it very hard on any team to amount to a comeback against the Rays.
With the bullpen being nothing less than outstanding in the 2008 season, their success has assuredly rubbed off on the starters. Combined, the starting five has 63 wins and only 45 losses. Even though every starter has pitched very well this season, can they hold up? Is this young pitching staff experienced enough to take on experienced teams like the Red Sox or the Angels?
The answer to those questions is, "Yes." Let's not forget that the Rays have the best record at home this season, and being lead by the 2007 strikeout king, Scott Kazmir, they are more than ready and confident to pitch well in any situation.
With Scott Kazmir being the ace of the club, and for him to be successful in October, he needs to manage his pitch count efficiently and have great command with his slider. The ability of Kazmir going deep into games is going to be essential for the Rays. Kazmir's effort can be even more valuable by keeping arms in the bullpen fresh for when Sonnansine's and Jackson's turn comes to pitch in the rotation.
Sonnanstine and Jackson have the two highest ERAs on the team, Jackson with a 4.37 and Sonnanstine with a 4.38. If these two guys can keep the Rays in the game without giving up a major amount of runs, look for the Rays to make a big run in October.
Perhaps the most consistent pitcher on the team, James Shields, needs to do more of the same as he did in the regular season. If there is a guy that needs to be an anchor for this team, it's Shields.
He's had a solid season with a 3.57 ERA and a 14-8 record. Shields has stayed healthy and has pitched great for the team in the past two seasons. With a fantastic one-two punch in Kazmir and Shields, the Rays should be able to make a long playoff run.
The middle guy in the rotation has been Matt Garza. Garza came to the Rays as a bit of a question mark, and with his injury concerns before the start of the season, no one really knew how he'd perform.
Garza has come through and stepped up just as every other player on this team has. Garza has answered every one of his critics by putting up very good numbers. A 3.66 ERA and an 11-6 record forms Garza's best body of work to this date in his young career.
Rays fans, I encourage you to be optimistic and look for more fireworks upon the ones that have already taken place. With the combination of five very good starters and a great bullpen, hits could be few and far between for the Red Sox, Angels, or Twins. The 2008 playoffs could not only be an exciting one, but a historic one.