Rays Swim Rough Waters to East Lead
The Tampa Bay Rays, one of the worst teams in professional sports since its creation in 1998, has experienced a reversal and transformed their identity. Usually the mainstay in the American League East basement, they now find themselves on top, ahead of powerhouses like New York and Boston. How long will it last?
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This has been more than just an enjoyable rivalry witnessed nineteen times annually. The phrase has become common place, a second thought, thanks to the dominance the two teams have displayed over the past decade and a half. In terms of playoff appearances, since 1995, the Red Sox have managed to qualify for an impressive seven postseasons, winning the World Series title twice, first in 2004 and again in 2007. Aside from 2006, Boston has not finished lower than second in their division.
Even more impressive has been the playoff prowess of the team from New York. In that same timeframe, the Yankees have never been home in October, a streak of thirteen seasons, currently the longest active playoff streak in Major League Baseball. In those thirteen seasons, they’ve been the American League representative in the Fall Classic an astonishing six times, coming away victorious in four of them. They have arguably been the most dominant team in sports.
But what makes sports so great is parody. At some point, parody will enter into the equation as a necessary evil, and baseball is no exception. The Arizona Diamondbacks became the quickest expansion team to win the World Series, doing so in 2001, upsetting those Goliath-like Yankees in stunning fashion. The Oakland A’s consistently field competitive team after competitive team with one of the lowest payrolls. Even the Florida Marlins have managed to grab two titles recently, once in 1997 and then in 2003 (before remembering that they were the Florida Marlins forcing them to unload any and all talent). Only the AL East has been impervious to change. Until 2008.
Exit the New York Yankees. Enter the Tampa Bay Rays.
Since their addition to the league in 1998, the team from Tampa has been a laughing stock. Year after year they’ve been one of the worst teams in baseball, finishing dead last in their division all but once, in 2004, when they finished fourth and posted their best record in franchise history, a whopping 70-91. The front office, ownership, and a small number of fans have witnessed prospect after prospect fail before their eyes, culminating in a culture of losing as devastating as the Black Plague.
But finally new ownership and a superior manager has this team in the right direction to say the least. As of today, the Rays hold the best winning percentage of the thirty teams. They’ve shown character and fortitude never thought possible from a team whose fan base consists of elderly Florida natives and Dick Vitale. As games passed, baseball pundits watched and waited for this emergence to come to a grinding halt. Well rest assured; the Rays are not going anywhere anytime soon.
The facts don’t lie. 85-56. Second in baseball.
While fans live for a powerhouse offense (thank you steroids), pitching and defense continues to win championships. What do the Rays possess? The pitching staff collectively has an ERA of 3.71, good for second in the majors. Their rotation boasts a trio of young studs in Scott Kazmir, James Shields, and Matt Garza. There is certainly no drop off in the late innings either. Veteran newcomer Troy Percival has anchored a bullpen that has been tops basically the entire season and the emergence of J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour has certainly aided in that. The defense has been equally as impressive, with a fielding percentage strong enough to place the Rays third in the American League.
While the offense lacks eye-popping statistics generally associated with a team performing at their level, the line-up is not something to brush off. Carl Crawford is a perennial All-Star with the ability to hit for decent power, while stealing fifty bases. Third baseman Evan Longoria is a first-time All-Star and current front-runner for the AL Rookie of the Year honors. He was leading all rookies in home runs and all AL third basemen in fielding percentage before heading to the disabled list with a broken wrist. Carlos Pena, a former Boston Red Sox reject, has emerged over the past few seasons as a dominant power threat, having been near the top of the league lead in home runs during his tenure with Tampa. And B.J. Upton is finally coming into his own, displaying the speed, fielding, and hitting ability that made him the second overall pick in the 2002 draft.
Let us not forget the bench. Willy Aybar has proved to be a capable utility player and free-agent signing Eric Hinske, who has seen a dramatic increase in playing time due to injuries in the outfield, has a respectable nineteen home runs.
Since numbers can be deceiving, what defines a championship season is how it overcomes adversity. To their credit, the Rays have fought through more adversity than any young team should have too, and they’ve smiled in the face of it. Not even acknowledging the fact that they play in arguably the worst facility in sports (Tropicana Field) and cannot give their tickets away, key members have succumbed to big injuries. The team was left for dead when Longoria and Crawford went down in back-to-back days, but feel-good-story Rocco Baldelli reemerged from the grave as a fill in, displaying flashes of the brilliance which made him a household name years ago. The media, too, has been critical of this team because of the aggressiveness with which they played at the beginning of the season (remember the brawls with New York and Boston!). Not even a seven-game losing streak entering the All-Star break, something which would understandably destroy a team this inexperienced with this culture of losing, fazed them. Good coaching and timely production has kept them focused in the driver’s seat. Look no further than the fact that they are 26-15 in one-run games.
They’re young, impressive, and seemingly unstoppable. As New York falls from grace, Tampa Bay has no problem filling the shoes.
Get used to saying it: Rays-Red Sox. They’re here to stay.