Meet the Rays: MLB's Great Unknown Tasked with Beating Dodgers Superteam

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistOctober 21, 2020

Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Tyler Glasnow leaves the game against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the fifth inning in Game 1 of the baseball World Series Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

ARLINGTON, Tex. – Yeah, you may know Tyler Glasnow has one of the game's most mind-bending curveballs and cornea-searing fastballs. And his flow is fabulous.

But in your quest to figure out just who these Tampa Bay Rays are, maybe you should know this, too: Dude keeps a WiFi-powered toaster in his locker at Tropicana Field and has used it to cook small meals for himself and his teammates.

And according to the Rays' media guide, one of the best in the game and a treasure trove of fun little nuggets that prove analytics doesn't have to be all starched collars and decimal points, Glasnow passed part of his youth in Newhall, California, tossing water balloons at automobiles from the top of a Subway sandwich shop. Now there's a sandwich artist.

Then one day, he was chagrined to learn that one of the water balloons exploded on the windshield of the wife of the local police chief. Presumably, he emphasized pitching over water-ballooning sometime soon thereafter.

Of course, in the lid-lifter of the 2020 World Series, Glasnow may privately have been wishing he was tossing somethinganythingother than baseballs as the Los Angeles Dodgers said hello by pasting the Rays into submission, 8-3.

Maybe Game 2 will go better for Tampa Bay on Wednesday night. Blake Snell, who won the 2018 American League Cy Young Award, gets the ball to try to even this series. He is said to own more than 400 pairs of shoes.

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Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

Surely, he must have a winning pair of cleats somewhere in that pile of size-13s. He started collecting shoes in the seventh grade by earning money catching bullpen sessions of students taking lessons from his father, a former minor league pitcher.

He grew out of catching soon enoughhe is 6'4"partly by gorging himself at his favorite hometown hangout, which soon enough honored him in meat and cheese by naming a pizza after him. Stop by Spiro's Pizza and Pasta in Snell's hometown of Shoreline, Washington, and order the Number Nineteen"The Blake Snell"which features Italian salami, pepperoni, Canadian bacon and mozzarella.

It's taken Tampa Bay 12 years to return to the World Series after getting stomped by the powerful Philadelphia Phillies in 2008. Now, its job is to avoid getting stomped by the powerful Dodgers. Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers president of baseball operations, was the general manager of the Rays in '08, and current Tampa Bay general manager Erik Neander once interned under him.

Neander was promoted to his current position after the 2016 season and, after the Rays pushed the Houston Astros to Game 5 in a division series last year before winning the AL East this year and producing the AL's best overall record, the Virginia Tech graduate has spent much of the last few days fielding questions from folks demanding to know how a team ranked 28th in payroll outsmarts everybody.

"We're not trying to outsmart anybody," Neander protested. "We're not trying do anything other than make the best decisions we can to do what's best for us in all facets in our operation."

But about outsmarting folks: Seven players in Tampa's Game 1 lineup were acquired via trade. Gold Glove center fielder Kevin Kiermaier was a 31st-round pick in the draft, for crying out loud. Of course, that was back in 2010 when Friedman was still running the Rays. So no, it isn't Neander alone who's outsmarting people.

"This is as good a group of people as you're going to find, certainly at the highest level, as ego-free and selfless as you'll see," Neander said before pinpointing Kiermaier as the "consummate Ray, one of many, many players over the moon to have the opportunity to showcase themselves on this stage."

Kiermaier wasted no time with that in Game 1 when he knocked a Clayton Kershaw slider over the fence for a home run in the fifth inning to briefly cut the Dodgers lead to 2-1. He added an RBI single in the seventh, but the Dodgers led 8-3 by then.

That's quite a difference from last October when after that division series loss to Houston, Kiermaier went home to his native Wisconsin and one of his favorite diversions: fishing. He owns a custom boat named "Outlaw Bonefishing" and spent one evening hauling in a 43-pound buffalo carpa personal bestat 2 a.m.

Still out of the lake this October, maybe Kiermaier's Game 1 slugging will inspire his tepid teammates. Despite eliminating the Yankees and Astros to get here, the Rays came into this World Series batting just .209 this postseason, the third-worst average since the playoffs expanded back in 1995. They also were in an 0-for-16 swamp with runners in scoring position going back to Game 3 of the AL Championship Series before, finally, Mike Brosseau rapped an RBI single in the seventh ahead of Kiermaier's.

Take second baseman Brandon Lowe (rhymes with "now"). Following another 0-for-4 night in Game 1, Lowe is now hitting .107 this postseason with one homer and two RBI. Apparently what Lowe needs is a big old heaping helping of…applesauce.

True story: When he was scuffling once at Triple-A Durham, the club stocked its clubhouse refrigerator with those GoGo squeezes of applesauce. Lowe saw them and thought maybe he hadn't been eating enough fruit lately. So he scarfed one and homered the next day, and applesauce has been his go-to ever since.

"Absolutely it's still there," he said Monday when I asked whether he still stocks applesauce. "That's one thing I won't change. I'll still be eating applesauce."

Clearly, he's a few jars short of a multi-hit game this autumn. Perhaps Randy Arozarena, the breakout star of this month and the ALCS MVP, has been swiping Lowe's applesauce. Acquired by Neander in a trade with St. Louis last winter, Arozarena has smashed seven homers this postseason, the most by any rookie in history.

He also was the breakout star of the Rays' celebration after eliminating the Yankees in the division series when he won the players' wild dance-off celebration with a spin move on his head.

"Glad he's OK," Neander said in what was either a wry quip or a massive sigh of relief.

"Oh man, this is coming from Willy [Adames]. They tell me he's hysterical, one of the funniest people [the Latin players] talk to," Lowe said of Arozarena. "The language barrier hurts, but when he's feeling good, he's a pretty funny guy."

"Really funny," Adames said. "He's like a Latin version of Kevin Hart."

Dodgers pitching handled Arozarena in the series opener. What he needs is some help. Maybe it could come from Yandy Diaz, a dedicated weightlifter whose "muscles have been featured in Men's Journal", informs the Rays' media guide. But Diaz managed only a single in Game 1, although even that nudged his postseason average from .125 to .143.

Fan favorite Ji-Man Choi, who specializes, gymnastics-style, in doing the splits while making all sorts of graceful plays at first base, is hitting .290 in the playoffs and maybe can help get the Rays going. But then again, October might not be the time for it because, as the media guide tells us, he "is terrified of ghosts and believed to have had many encounters with them, including hugs and whispers." Choi said he felt a "spirit" on his chest while recovering from 2011 back surgery and felt the bed slump.

He was called on in Game 1 to pinch hit for Adames in the seventh and face right-hander Dylan Floro. But then, before making it to the plate, he disappeared just as quickly as if…he had seen a ghost. It was either that or Dodgers manager Dave Roberts summoning lefty Victor Gonzalez that caused Rays manager Kevin Cash to send Brosseau to bat for Choi at that point.

Yes, these Rays have character, and some of them are characters. But they'd better start hitting before the Dodgers win this thing in three games.

Heading into this World Series, an astounding 71.9 percent of Tampa Bay's runs this postseason have scored via home runs. It is the highest percentage of postseason runs resulting from homers since the Willie Stargell, Bob Robertson 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, who scored 58.3 percent of their postseason runs on homers.

However, living by the home run is not who these guys are or should be. During the season, only 41.5 percent of Tampa Bay's runs scored via the home run.

So were they shellshocked when the Dodgers tore into them in the opener? Rattled?

Eric Gay/Associated Press

"Not one bit," said catcher Mike Zunino, whose parents met in Italy while playing for the country's premier baseball and softball leagues (his mom, Paola, was a catcher on the Italian national softball team). "Not one bit. It's the game of baseball. There are going to be a lot more games to be played. These games can run wild sometimes."

Uncharacteristically, so did Tampa's pitching in Game 1. The Rays issued seven walks, and three of those Dodgers runners came around to score. That, too, is a disastrous recipe for attempting to beat a team as complete as the Dodgers.

But because of the lopsidedness, Cash didn't even unleash his "stable" of top-shelf relievers who blow straight gas at 98 mph or higher.

There's Nick Anderson, who bounced around various independent leagues and didn't even play affiliated baseball until he was 25.

There's rookie Pete Fairbanks, who once hoped to design military aircraft for Boeing and scored 34 of a possible 36 points on his ACT.

There's Diego Castillo, who doubles as a cook and once recorded a family recipe of chicken, rice and plantains in a Nov. 2016 cooking video that was shared on the Rays' Twitter account.

Game 3 starter Charlie Morton can cook, too. He picked up barbecuing while recovering from Tommy John surgery and is serious enough about it that he is known to rise at 3 a.m. on days he's planning a big smoke.

However Game 2 turns out, of course, the Rays certainly could use Morton, who has been dominant this postseason, to, ahem, smoke the Dodgers.

"We'll be OK," Kiermaier promised. "It's not really how you want to start out the first game, but we'll be just fine."


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter to talk baseball.