As the Rays tie up the AL wild card race in one of the most dramatic comebacks in baseball history, I am left to wonder what will happen when the champagne is done flowing. Just a reminder to the baseball world, there is still the postseason to play. Analysts and experts have argued who will survive September in possession of the coveted final postseason spot to the point of nausea, but to my knowledge, no one has asked the question of just what will happen if and when the Rays actually make it to their third playoffs in four seasons.
Honestly, the fact the Rays are even in this position, facing off in a two-game sprint to the finish in the tortuous AL East, is mighty impressive. Joe Maddon deserves AL Manager of the Year (and it's not close) for extracting every drop of potential out of a major league roster that just barely cost more then their farm system.
However, can this squad realistically expect to compete in a AL playoffs with Detroit, New York and Texas? Heck, this Texas squad is almost identical to the team that bounced the Rays in five games last season, and that Tampa team was on paper far superior to the one currently playing! Can this team of underpaid, overlooked and insanely young players actually fight with the top dogs of the AL for the right to play in the franchise's second World Series?
You're damn right they can!
I ask the question of what is the single most important element that predicts postseason success? The answer is the starting rotation.
Consider just last season. Which teams from each league had the strongest four, top to bottom? The Rangers with Cliff Lee (3.18 ERA going into playoffs), C.J. Wilson (3.35), Colby Lewis (3.72) as their top three, while throwing out Tommy Hunter as their No. 4, had the most dominant rotation, holding the Rays to under three runs per game and the vaunted New York Yankees to just over three runs a game.
And then, of course, you have the champion San Francisco Giants. With Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez and Madison Baumgarner being sent to the mound, the Giants tore through the NL ranks on their way to some epic pitching duels and the World Series championship.
What will be the outcome of the Rays' 2011 season?
Does offense matter? Without question.
You can't win if you can't score. However, if the Rays have shown one thing during this September run to relevancy, it's that they know how to manufacture runs when they need them. The Rays currently sport the 26th-ranked team batting average, with only one regular player hitting above .300 (journeyman 1B Casey Kotchman). Despite that, they are 14th in runs scored. They have achieved this anomaly by utilizing aggressive small-ball tactics in the right spots. Much of the Rays now-famous use of advanced metrics goes into finding the weak spots in team defenses and exploiting them.
However, as I mentioned, playoff success is best predicted by starting rotations, and the Rays have a damn good one.
David Price is unquestionably the ace of this staff, with a 3.32 ERA this season and a presence that absolutely dominates the mound. The Rays will throw him out on what could be the most important game of the season, No. 162 against the Yankees on Wednesday.
Why Price? Because he is their best, and the Rays know it.
"Big Game" James Shields is the second best No. 2 starter in the game, behind the Phillies' Cliff Lee. He has always been clutch, but he has been otherworldly this season, sporting a 2.82 ERA, 225 strikeouts, a ridiculous 1.04 WHIP and a demigod-like 11 complete games. This is the Rays' workhorse, and he has only improved in that role.
I ask again, why throw out David Price on Wednesday, the team's best pitcher? Because the Rays have no problem throwing out Shields in Game 1.
After the two studs, the staff rounds out with the should-be AL Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson, who has surprised to cement his status as the No. 3 pitcher with a 2.90 ERA and flashes of absolute brilliance, and the choose-your-own-experience group of Jeff Nieman, Wade Davis and the prize of the Rays farm system, Matt Moore. Any of those last three would make a strong No. 4 at the end of that rotation.
That rotation is far and away the best of the remaining contenders in the American League. According to ESPN Stats and Info, the Rays have the second most starts that have gone seven-plus innings while giving up only two runs or fewer. The first is the offensively challenged Phillies. Right behind the Rays is the Angels, Giants and Brewers.
What is intriguing about that list? If the Rays make the postseason, they will be the only AL participant who made the cut.
All this information adds up to show that the Rays' starting rotation is not just better than the competition, but that it is overwhelmingly better!
Are the Rays' World Series chances slim? Absolutely. They are an offensively challenged club that struggles to score bunches of runs when it needs them. And they will be facing the best of the best offenses in baseball by having to go through the Yankees (second in runs scored), the Rangers (third in runs scored) and the Tigers (fourth in runs scored).
However, if the Rangers could overcome the Yankees and the Rays, and the Giants could smite the Braves and the Phillies before downing the Rangers on their way to glory, then why can't the Rays?
All you need is a chance in the playoffs. One chance. The Rays proved that once in 2008. Their starting staff is absolutely filthy.
Tampa Bay, rejoice, your Rays have the opportunity to be world-beaters once more. And history may just be on their side, this time.