How do you explain the Tampa Bay Rays success this season? How does a team with the 29th lowest team payroll (only $43,422,997) lead the tough American League East by three and a half games over the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox, 71-52 thru August 16th -- who have the fourth highest payrolls at $133,440,037 -- and the New York Yankees (65-58), with the highest payroll in the league at $209,081,579?
The Rays entered their 11th season in the majors having never had a winning season, never won more than 70 games in a season, and obviously never making the playoffs. Fast forward to Memorial Day, 2008 and the Rays were in first place in the AL East and owned the best record in all of major league baseball at 31-20. The Rays became the first team in modern Major League history (since 1900) to hold the best record in the league through Memorial Day, having the worst record in the league the year before at 66-96. This season they got their franchise record 71st win on August 10th with a dominate 11-3 win over the Seattle Mariners. The Mariners (46-76) are the worst team in the American League (AL) despite having the ninth highest team salary in the league at just under $118 million. While the Rays are overachieving this season, the Mariners are underachieving and sinking faster than a rock thrown into Crater Lake.
A name change may play a factor. This is the first season the Tampa Bay franchise is just called the Rays. They are putting behind them their 10 years of futility as the Devil Rays. I think it was a good move for them to remove "Devil" from their team name as now they are receiving God's blessing this season.
The Rays are the best home team in the AL at 45-17 through August 16th. They have the best record against fellow AL East teams (28-19), the toughest division in the junior circuit. So how are the Rays doing it? What is making this season a winning-season so far for the Rays? A key for successful baseball is always solid defense and pitching and this season the Rays have it.
Tampa Bay has a young team and is built mainly from their strong minor league system. They only have four free agents on their roster in first baseman Carlos Pena (.248, 56 runs, 24 home runs, 68 runs batted in); designated hitter Cliff Floyd (.265, 8 hr, 23 rbi), closer Troy Percival (2-0, 3.69 ERA, 36 strikeouts and leads the team with 27 saves), and relief pitcher Trever Miller (1-0, 4.55, 7 holds, 28 Ks in 31 2/3 innings).
Most of the young Rays aren't household names. The ace starter of their piching rotation is Andy Sonnanstine (12-6, 4.35, 92 Ks) leads the team with 12 wins. Matt Garza (10-7, 3.63, 98 Ks), acquired in an off season trade with the Minnesota Twins, leads the team in ERA with at least 23 starts. James Shields (10-7 3.75) leads the Rays in strikeouts (Ks) with 128 in 163 innings pitched. Edwin Jackson (9-7 4.07, 77 Ks), and Scott Kazmir (8-6 3.22, 120 Ks in 109 innings), round out the Rays winning rotation. It's the first time in franchise history all five of their starters have winning records this late in the season.
Can the Rays hold on anc clinch their first division title, or at least the wild card and their first playoff berth?
They are coming off a tough week, suffering three injuries to key members of their team:
On August 7th, during a 2-1 win over the Mariners in Seattle, third baseman Evan Longoria (.278, 56 runs, 22 hr, 71 rbi, 7 sb) suffered a fractured right wrist when he was hit in the 9th inning by a fastball from JJ Putz. He most likely will be out the rest of the season. This is a big blow to the Rays offense as Longoria led the team in batting average and RBIs.
Then in the final game of the series in Seattle, August 9th, leftfielder Carl Crawford (.273, 69 runs, 8 hr, 57 rbi) went on the DL the next day following a sublaxation of his right middle finger tendon in the previous days 8-7 win in 11 innings. He is expected to miss six to eight weeks.
Then on Friday, August 15th, Rays closer Percival was placed on the 15-day DL with cartliage damage in his right knee. He damaged the cartliage while fielding a bunt by Oakland's Mark Ellis. He beat the batter to the bag to record the out, but hobbled back to the mound. The Rays are 33-0 in games Percival has entered with a save opportunity. Tampa won that Thursday night game at Oakland, 7-6 on Pena's two-run homer in the 12th. Miller picked up his first save. During the game the Rays ended A's reliever Brad Ziegler's record scoreless inning streak, who started his career with 39 consecutive scoreless innings to tie a 59-year old major league record. BJ Upton hit an RBI double in the 9th to give the Rays a 5-4 lead when Alzonori Iwamura scored.
Rays manager Joe Maddon can be given a lot of credit for the Rays turnaround this season too and motivating his young team and developing a winning attitude. The Rays are playing with confidence this season and feel every time they go on the field they can win a new feeling for this franchise and its fans.
I am confident the Rays can overcome these injuries and stay in the playoff race. If they keep playing the way they have all season they can maintain their lead over the Red Sox and make it to their first playoffs. The Rays should win at least 90 games this season, but I think the Angels are too tough, and have a more balanced team, and they will keep the Rays as one of only four franchises to never make it to the World Series.