The Rays came into the World Series as the favorite, and most pundits say it’s because of their pitching. The Phillies have an ace starter in Hamels, but he’ll only be able to account for two wins. They also have an ace closer in Lidge, with 41 saves, but he can’t save the game unless he has the lead coming in.
With the Rays, you have the potential for three ace starters...but you never know which pitcher is going to take the mound in any given game. Kazmir has been a little unsteady. “Big Game” James Shields didn’t do so well in his last "Big Game." Garza looks the strongest right now.
But during the regular season, Garza bequeathed 21 runners on base to the bullpen. Only two of them scored, so my point is that Garza’s respectable 3.7 ERA could have been a lot worse.
One of the most successful Rays starters this season was (surprise!) Andy Sonnanstine, with 13 wins—more than Garza or Kaz. But no one is going to confuse Sonnanstine’s stuff with that of an ace. All of these starters have been good enough for long enough in most games to give the ball to the bullpen with a chance for the Rays to win. And on the strength of their ’pen, they’ve won more games this year than any team in MLB.
So, regardless of who starts the game for the Rays, they win or lose based upon the performance of their bullpen. In a season that has been all about fortunate bounces, overcoming adversity, and odd decisions that end up looking perfect—it’s no surprise that the best closer on the Rays team hasn’t thrown a pitch in the postseason.
Troy Percival, with 28 saves, was a shut-down closer for the first half of the season but became steadily worse due to persistent back pain. The guy’s got plenty of heart having taken epidural injections to try to continue his season...But his body just couldn’t hold up.
So that leaves the job of closer a little up in the air. With his stunning performance in Game Seven of the ALCS, David Price became an instant fan favorite and media darling. I think he may be a factor, but I don’t see him being used in the true role of repetitive shut-down closer (like Lidge for the Phillies or Papelbon for Boston). The fact is, Wheeler is the closest thing the Rays have to a true closer now, and he might not really be used that way. It all depends on Joe...
Joe Maddon has a certain “Mad Scientist” quality when it comes to managing the Rays. He isn’t afraid to put pitchers into situations that they’ve never been in before (see Price, ALCS), and he will platoon pitchers with reckless abandon. So expect to see the submariner Bradford, Howell, and Miller used as situational middle relievers, Balfour, when talking-to-yourself-near-insane intensity is called for, and Wheeler as the last man standing as closer.
Yes, I left out Price. The way Joe runs this team, I think he is as likely to use Price as a closer as he is to use him in the fifth if someone gets off to a rocky start. I’ve been listening to baseball experts question Maddon and second-guess his decisions all year. When his wacky decisions work out, they all say the same thing: He was lucky!
Lefty Gomez said, “I’d rather be lucky than good,” with the 2008 Rays, I think you have both!