The Rays finished fourth in baseball in defensive efficiency. In watching Tampa Bay win the Wild Card tiebreaker over Texas and the Wild Card play-in game against Cleveland, their infield defense really stood out.
The numbers back up the eye test in that regard. Third baseman Evan Longoria (plus-14.6 ultimate zone rating), shortstop Yunel Escobar (plus-10.7), second baseman Ben Zobrist (plus-10) and first baseman James Loney (plus-6.1) all had outstanding defensive seasons. Meanwhile, catcher Jose Molina does an exceptional job of stealing extra strikes with his pitch-framing skills.
On the mound, the Rays have arguably the postseason's best one-two punch at the top of the rotation in David Price and Alex Cobb. Price threw a complete game on Monday in the Rays' 5-2 win over Texas. Cobb followed Price's performance with 6.2 shutout innings against the Indians on Wednesday night.
Price finished the year with a 3.33 ERA and a 3.03 FIP (fielding independent pitching, an ERA estimator based on strikeout, walk and home-run rates). Cobb went 11-3 with a 2.76 ERA and a 3.36 FIP.
Matt Moore will take the ball in Game 1 of the ALDS against the Boston Red Sox. He went 17-4 with a 3.29 ERA while leading the Rays staff in strikeouts per nine innings (K/9). Chris Archer is the likely choice for the fourth spot in the playoff rotation. He posted a 3.22 ERA over 23 starts in his rookie season.
The back of the Tampa Bay bullpen is stacked as well. Closer Fernando Rodney (3.38 ERA, 11.07 K/9), setup-man Joel Peralta (3.41 ERA, 9.34 K/9), lefty Alex Torres (1.71 ERA, 9.62 K/9) and lefty Jake McGee (4.02 ERA, 10.77 K/9) all possess swing-and-miss stuff in the late innings. Rodney and McGee each possess fastballs with an average velocity in excess of 96 mph.
Tampa Bay's pitching and defense will run up against the game's best offensive team in the first round of the playoffs. The Red Sox led all of baseball in runs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) and doubles. They were sixth in home runs, second in batting average and third in walks.
Based on regular-season play, the Red Sox should be the clear favorites. They finished 5.5 games ahead of Tampa Bay and they won the season series, 12-7, over the Rays. The Red Sox outscored their opponents by 143 more runs than the Rays did.
The Rays also won't be able to use Price until Game 2 and Cobb until Game 3 because of the two elimination games they had to play this week. On top of all that, the Red Sox have home-field advantage in this series.
However, if you want to make the baseball gods laugh, tell them your postseason predictions. Baseball is unpredictable enough over a 162-game stretch. In the tiny sample size of a five-game playoff series, anything is possible.
Tampa Bay's defense, starting pitching and late-inning relief corps are good enough to overcome the mighty Boston offense. Excellent pitching and defense don't always conquer great hitting, although Tampa Bay isn't inept on offense by any means, either.
The Rays finished seventh in baseball in OPS and 11th in runs scored despite playing half their games at pitcher-friendly Tropicana Field. They'll be going up against a very good Boston rotation that includes Jon Lester (3.75), John Lackey (3.52), Clay Buchholz (1.74) and Jake Peavy (4.17).
Longoria (.842 OPS, 32 home runs), right fielder Wil Myers (.831 OPS), Loney (.778 OPS), Zobrist (.756 OPS) and center fielder Desmond Jennings (.748 OPS) did the heavy lifting for the Tampa Bay offense during the regular season. They'll need to ride those bats into October to overcome the Red Sox.
Tampa Bay has averaged 92 wins per season over the last six years while spending an average of only $57.9 million on payroll. They've yet to win it all in their three prior trips to the playoffs, but they did win the American League pennant in 2008.
Playoff predictions are never easy to make given the small sample sizes at play in the postseason. However, the Rays' ability to prevent runs gives them as good of a chance as any team to win the World Series. This year's team has the top-of-the-rotation aces, defense and bullpen to finally get the franchise over the hump in October.
No matter how the rest of the postseason plays out, Tampa Bay's run of success on a shoestring budget over the last six seasons has been nothing short of remarkable. Its back-to-back wins in elimination games this week have set the stage for a deep playoff run.
This could finally be the Rays' October to shine.
All statistics in this article are courtesy of ESPN.