The Tampa Bay Rays have been the darlings of MLB all season. They have made quite a turnaround and have been arguably the best team in baseball all season long. They started around .500, but were supposed to fall into the depths of the AL East by the end of the season. They aren't supposed to be able to lead their division this late in the season, yet they have done the improbable by winning 79 games and being ahead of the Red Sox with just 5 weeks left in the season.
This year was supposed to be another step towards greatness for a franchise that has floundered since it's creation just ten years ago. Instead of a step towards greatness, they took a leap and now are on the path to their first division title ever. A lot of credit is given to Joe Maddon, and rightfully so. After a few years at the bottom of their division, Maddon has lead this young, talented ball club to a 79-50 record in their first 129 games this season.
That's 29 games over .500. Tied for the highest winning percentage in the AL. Now, what is this franchise milestone that I speak of in the title of this blog? The fact that the Rays have NEVER finished above .500 in a season. Yet, with September looming, they can already clinch a record above .500 before September. How exactly have these Rays risen from the bottom in the AL East, and have ascended above the likes of the Yankees and Red Sox. How have they been able to win so many games with just one All-Star who got in due to a Final Fan Vote?
How have they been able to win so many games without that All-Star (Evan Longoria) since August 8th?
That's right. Ever since Longoria was put on the disabled list on August 8th, the Rays have gone 11-4. Arguably their most important offensive player, Longoria was batting .278 with 22 homers and 71 RBIs before he went down. He leads the team in AVG and OPS (.885). He also has an OBP of .352 and a SLG% of .533. He was the first choice for most when choosing an AL Rookie of the Year for 2008.
What about Carl Crawford, who has been the face of the franchise in the past few years?
Yea, he's out to. The franchise leader in:
Batting Average - .293
Runs - 559
Plate Appearances - 4,054
At-Bats - 3,786
Games - 923
Hits - 1,111
Total bases - 1646
Stolen bases - 302
Triples - 84
Singles - 800
Extra base hits - 311
He's ranks Top 5 in:
OBP - .330
SLG% - .435
OPS - .765
2B - 157
HR - 70
RBI - 434
BBs - 796
Intentional BBs - 16
Damn, that's a lot of categories. Easily the best player who's ever played for the Rays, Crawford has been out since August 10th due to a finger injury. The Rays have gone 8-4 in his absence. They miss his bat, his speed and his all around play. But, most of all, they miss his veteran experience and leadership, yet they still have a 75% winning percentage without him. He will make this team all the more better if he returns.
The Rays have been able to come so close to this feat because of their all-around balance as a team. Their pitching staff is definitely their strong point, while their offense is not bad either.
In AL Pitching Stats, they are:
2nd in ERA (3.71)
1st in BAA (.244)
3rd in OPS (.705)
2nd in SV (42)
2nd in WHIP (1.28)
5th in Quality Starts (67)
In AL Batting Stats, they are:
12th in AVG (.259)
10th in Runs (597)
8th in OBP (.336)
8th in SLG% (.418)
7th in OPS (.755)
1st in SB (123)
As one can see, although the pitching staff may be the more dominant part of this team, the Rays' offense isn't one to be forgotten. They are an athletic bunch who can beat you in more ways than one.
Their rotation is led by a group of young starters who have really developed nicely for the Rays this season, Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Andy Sonnanstine.
Scott Kazmir has been fantastic for the Rays, and his potential is finally being realized. This season, Kazmir has gone 9-6 with a 3.27 ERA with 134 Ks in only 21 starts. Most starters have 26-28 starts so far this season, and if Kazmir had 28 starts, he would have 12 wins and 179 Ks (good enough for 2nd in the AL).
James Shields has come into his own this season. He's 11-7 with a 3.68 ERA and a 1.15 WHIP. He's been a big game pitcher for the Rays this season. Although he has a high ERA, he's been a reliable pitcher for Rays' fans to look forward to.
Andy Sonnanstine leads the Rays in wins, with 13. He has a high ERA and WHIP, but with time those will surely go down. He's still young, at 25, and he has good potential. I wouldn't be surprised to see Sonnanstine win 15 games this year.
Another player who has contributed to the Rays success is Rocco Baldelli. In 8 games for the Rays this year, he has a .308 batting average, 2 homers and 4 RBIs. His health has been a huge question for the past few years (just 127 games from 06-07) but he's showing that when on the field, he can produce.
As stated previously, Joe Maddon should be given a lot of credit for the way he has handled this ball club and their new found success all season. He has kept their heads out of the clouds and focused on baseball, and he won't hesitate in benching a key player due to a mental lapse (ex: benching BJ Upton after a base running blunder a few days ago).
The Rays have all the key ingredients to go deep into the playoffs, yet no one speaks their name when choosing the AL winner. Most say "they are to young" or "they will crack under the pressure".
Sound familiar? That's what all the analysts, all the fans and anyone who knows baseball said before the season, and when the Rays were leading the division in June. Apparently, if your young, you are bound to crack under pressure.
Can someone give me a valid reason as to why they are too young? They haven't cracked yet, and show no signs of cracking. Hell, they look like a BETTER team to me in recent weeks than they did earlier in the season. I am tired of people saying that the Rays' won't be going deep into the postseason, because in reality, there is nothing except their age which people use to disprove a theory that states they will be successful in the postseason this year.
But, I think the Rays may like being underestimated. After all, that's how they were treated before this season, and they are still in the division lead.
Still over .500
P.S. Huge props to hemo, without him, this blog wouldn't be nearly as good as I hope it is.