This isnt a magic trick. There is no punch line. It's not even a fluke.
It's for real.
Without leading you astray for too much longer, I'm talking about the Tampa Bay Rays. Those pesky former Devils that are playing better team baseball than anyone -- even the defending World Champions. They arent playing tonight, but many teams they've left in their wake are, like the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees for instance.
At 52-32 and a mark of 8-2 in their last 10-games, the Rays are overall 24-15 against divisional opponents and are leading the AL East by 3 games due to the 7-0 win by Boston in New York tonight. We've heard the stories, the overly repeated and stressed managerial job by Joe Maddon that started with him practically brainwashing his young team (average age of 27) into not just thinking, but believing that this was their year -- not next year, or the next, or sometime in the next decade.
The Rays have been in the Major Leagues for 10-years, and during those 10-years they only went through 15-days in first place. For the first nine-years of the teams existence, they had nine losing seasons that included five-years in which their win percentage was below 40%. (98, 01, 02, 03, 06) They've been the butt end of joke after joke, year after year and up until this season, had been done nothing but lose. During the decade of winless baseball the teams that put on the Rays uniforms saw Tropicana Field as hell. A place where players go to sit in desolation before their careers ended, or they were eventually used as trade bait that would result in only more disappointment for the team they had been moved from. The towering, domed roof created an enclosed sensation for the fans, players and all involved, ever more increasing the tension and idea that the Rays were truly the bottom feaders of the MLB rankings. The organization tried drawing up plans for a new stadium but never even attempted to present it to the city for they new that a team like theirs would never get anything but a chuckle.
But, there was always hope. That hope was personified in players like Carl Crawford, who's the longest tenured Ray being there since 2002. Scott Kazmir has been with the team since 2005, and has since led the Majors in strikeouts, giving the men in the front office one definite ideal to hold onto -- they had an ace. With that ace, they knew they also had a dynamic outfielder. Slowly they built up the farm system, bringing in young talent and surrounding their stars with them. In this past offseason, they picked up veteran line-drive hitter Cliff Floyd to add leadership to an extremely young team. They fixed the bullpen, which was literally the worst the MLB had seen in 50-odd years in 2007, by bringing in men like Troy Percival. Add B.J. Upton, Edwin Jackson and two-weeks into the season, third baseman Evan Longoria (no relation, Tony) to the mix and the Rays were finally looking like a team that would live up to what Joe Maddon had so incestantly preached during the weeks and months leading up to Opening Day. Throw in taking out the Devil in their name and reworked the uni's to look more sleek, to symbolize their promising future, and you've got something building in the depths of the AL East sea.
In 2007, the Rays were bar-none one of the worst teams in baseball pitching wise. Outside of Scott Kazmir and James Shields, no one else in the entire starting rotation had an ERA below 4.0. In fact, of the 17-pitchers in the bullpen, only two had an ERA below 4.0. The pitching staff's overal ERA ranked 14th in the AL at 5.53. There were only 26-saves made that year, which is four-less than what Francisco Rodriguez of the Anaheim Angels has right now. Flash forward to 2008 and you've got yourself a completely different stat sheet. There are a lot of the same names with a few others that have contributed to a pitching staff that is 4th in the AL in ERA at 3.67, 2nd in Opponent Batting Average, 4th in Saves, 4th in WHIP and has on the season five-complete games. The bullpen is one of the AL's best, which is nearly a complete Boston Celtics caliber turnaround.
The pitching is getting it done. And somehow, so is the offense. They have no sluggers. No power hitters or superstars that you could chock up for an All-Star bid or Silver Slugger awards. What they have is seasoned veterans who know the game and are hitting the cover off the ball, providing that needed power: Cliff Floyd, Eric Hinske and Carl Crawford. And then there are the players other than Eric Hinske who no one saw coming, who for the most part no one had even heard of outside of seeing them on the bottom part of the overall MLB roster on their latest MLB video game: Dioner Navarro, Akinori Iwamura and Jason Bartlett. Who are all combined hitting a remarkable .281 and have tossed in 77-RBI's. And then, there's those young, electrifying but surprisingly calm, veteran like stars: Carlos Pena, Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton. Pena hit a silent 46-home runs last season, and this year although spending time on the DL has still put up 11-dingers, adding to Longoria's 15 and Upton's quiet power with six, but tossing in over 40-RBI's. These three stars are what will fuel this team for years to come, but right now in Tampa Bay they're thinking in the present.
They're thinking about an AL East crown and because they're that confident, a World Championship. And we can thank, (graciously or viciously) Joe Maddon for that. Terry Francona will be leading the AL All-Stars this year into Yankee Stadium for the first and last time, Joe Maddon looks like the odds-on favorite to be doing so next year in whatever stadium the game that counts -- but shouldnt -- is to be played in. For much of this season we were hearing the praises of Maddon and the Rays. How much of a turnaround they've been. How they are simply amazing and are inexplicably dominating the MLB ranks. For much of this season, no one cared. I didnt; I sat on the idea that they were yet to get on a tough rode trip: in their last 15-road games since the start of June, they are 8-7, losing two series but winning ones over Texas, Florida and Pittsburgh. I figured that before the All-Star break their hitting would diminish: not so much, guys like Navaro are still hitting over .300 and everyone else is no where near below .250. I thought that at some point when they met the big boys again they'd falter, slip and start to dwindle a bit leading into the All-Star break -- mostly because of the sweep the Sox put on them in Boston and them losing two-of-three in Anaheim in early June: instead, they swept the Boston Red Sox right back in three-games under the roof of Tropicana; with a sold-out crowd to boot.
And that's what did it for me. That three-game set they won over my Boston Red Sox, the defending Champions and the love of ESPN's life. Despite not going up against the ace of their staff, Josh Beckett, they did vanquish old knuckler Tim Wakefield, and ran up Dice-K's pitch count and ripped right through their bullpen. They didnt beat down the Sox, but in the ways they beat them they really did. They revealed to the League that the Sox were vulnerable without Papi -- it had yet to be apparent because the Sox were yet to drop in team batting average or runs-per game since his departure to the DL. Every time a blow that would've been a finisher in years past was made, they came right back; and that was never more killer than in last night's game when Boston went into the bottom of the 7th with a three-run lead and the bullpen looking to nail it down. Six-runs and no-home runs later, the Rays were in the lead 7-4 and the sold-out crowd of more than 36,000 were on their feet and busting out the brooms they had brought for fun. Tampa did not fold when Dustin Pedroia got his fourth hit of the night and his second double pushing across a run in the 8th. Nor did they falter and lose their poise when the Red Sox scratched across two more runs in the 9th. They got a little help from their friend across the way in Tito who foolishly sat and did nothing with his roster with one-out, one on and Jason Varitek, who coming into that final at-bat was 12 for his last 100. They relied on his lack of thinking that should've led to him pinch running Lowell for Cora and pinch hitting Varitek for Casey. But outside of my homeristic views of that game and how it concluded, the Rays flat outplayed and outmanaged Boston to take that series.
And my confidence, too. With that sweep, it's more than obvious that they're for real. ESPN has been screaming about it ever since the last strike that rung up Varitek: "ARE THE RAYS FOR REAL? THEY JUST SWEPT THE DEFENDING CHAMPIONS. TIM KURKJEAN NEXT." It's time that the rest of us tuned out the media and came to the conclusion on our own that this team isnt going away -- much like Red Sox fans over the years in that the Yankees will always come storming back after every slow start to the season. And dont get me wrong here, I'm not jumping on this team's bandwagon. (it's pretty full already) I'm a Red Sox fan, ans as one, I saw this team pummel mine. It's more a vote of confidence if anything. An acknowledgment that they can play. A tip of the cap, if you will.
And speaking of those Yankees, get ready. You're going to their house after the Boston series for two games. You'll be facing two of their 20-something studs in Kazmir and Jackson.
AL East teams, fans and those who hate the AL East, beware. These guys are young, firey, confident and they're on their way to the playoffs. Whether that's through a Wild Card spot or a Division Crown is yet to be seen.