It's the morning of April 11th, and all is not right in the AL East. The Rays and the Red Sox were set to do battle that evening at Fenway Park, and two supposed contenders had already lost a combined 15 games. The 2-7 Red Sox had just won two of three from the Yankees. The Rays dropped two of three to the White Sox and sat in last place at 1-8.
Then, the Rays woke up. That Monday night, the Rays erupted for 16 runs and demolished Daisuke Matsuzaka and the Red Sox 16-5. The Rays have gone 12-3 since, and in the process turned 2011 from a rebuilding year into yet another year of AL East contention. As the Yankees have played their typical baseball and sit in first place, the Red Sox have somewhat hit a stride, yet sit in fourth place with an 11-13 record.
But right now, everything the Red Sox did to improve this offseason is starting to look inadequate. It's only late April, but everyone in Beantown knows that this is not the Sox team that was supposed to be on the field this year. And a thousand miles away in St. Petersburg, the Rays have gone from a team that lost everything in the offseason to a legitimate threat to make the playoffs.
They've done it in a variety of ways. They've replaced Manny Ramirez at designated hitter with Johnny Damon, who has flourished and provided a collection of big hits. To fill the void in left field, the Rays called on an undersized Stanford graduate named Sam Fuld to take over. You probably know his story by now.
The pitching has been stellar—and that is a severe understatement. James Shields, the supposedly washed-up and home run-prone starter, has thrown two straight complete games and has seemed to regain confidence and control of his pitches. David Price, who had a rough start to the year, has found his form and been dominant the last three times out. Behind them, it's been a steady stream of strong starts from Wade Davis, Jeremy Hellickson, and, as of last night, Jeff Niemann.
On Thursday, Ben Zobrist had 10 RBIs. That is not a misprint. In a day-night doubleheader, Zorilla, as he is known, had eight in the first game and added two more in the second. His April 28th RBI total exceeds the 2011 totals of Hanley Ramirez and Justin Morneau. For the road trip, Zobrist hit four home runs and brought in 18 RBIs.
And for every hot player like Zobrist, there's the missing bat of John Jaso and Reid Brignac. There's the missing power stroke from Matt Joyce (who, to be fair, is hitting .310). This offense has not yet hit its stride.
The scariest part? There's a certain third baseman whose name rhymes with Schmevan Schmongoria who is due to return from a month-long DL stint on Tuesday. Insert him into the middle of the lineup and, all of the sudden, the Rays look pretty dangerous swinging the bats. Who would have thought anyone would be saying that for a team who had 20 runs through nine games?
The supposed weakness of the team—the bullpen—has been good. They haven't been working a lot lately (thank the starters for that), but only one reliever has an ERA over 4.00, and they've all done exactly what has been asked of them—keep the game close or keep the lead. And just like the offense, they will be getting a huge boost with the return of J.P. Howell in a few weeks.
A lot has gone right for this team since their 1-8 start. Sam Fuld might be an all-star; Carl Crawford won't. Ben Zobrist looks like he's earning his $18 million contract. Johnny Damon is proving to be yet another genius investment by Andrew Friedman. And, with no offense to the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, or Athletics, the Rays do have the best top-to-bottom rotation in the American League this year.
As we move into May, lots could change. The Red Sox could catch fire. James Shields could revert back to his inflated ERA form. The bullpen could experience a complete collapse. But right now, very few, if any, teams want to play the Rays. After a dominant sweep of the Twins in Minneapolis, the Rays sit at 14-11, lurking just a game and a half behind the Yankees.
If the Yankees and the rest of the AL East aren't scared yet, they need to be. This Rays team is very good, very scary, and they won't be going away any time soon.