Thursday, September 18, 2008


IS IT JUST COINCIDENCE that the year they drop Devils from their name, the Tampa Bay Rays are playing like Greek gods?

With 12 games to go, the rejuvenated Rays lead the American League East by two from the Boston Red Sox.

When the Rays lost the opening game of their final series with the reigning world champions 13-5 at Tropicana Field on Monday night, they seemed ready to relinquish a lead they have held for much of the year.

But as one baseball writer put it: “Go ahead and beat the Rays, and beat ’em up bad. But you better show up the next night, because they aren’t going anywhere.”

The Red Sox should have heeded those words. The next night, the Rays won 2-1 on a walk-off single with the bases loaded and one out. Then last night, they took Tim Wakefield deep and often to rout the Sox 10-3.

Wakefield acknowledged afterwards: “They’re not the team we’re used to playing; they’re not a team to take for granted right now.”

Regardless of whether the Rays go on to win the pennant and the World Series, this is one of the greatest turnarounds in the history of sport.

Tampa Bay set to go from last to first

Just look at the stats. Since they played their first Major League game in 1998, the Rays have not had a winning season.

Their best effort came in 2004, when they went 70-91 under Lou Piniella. That was only time in franchise history that they managed to avoid finishing last in the division.

In 2006, they lost 101 games. Only last year, they went 66-96. Yet, here we are less than 12 months later, and the Rays’ record reads a remarkable 90-70.

With four more games at home against the Minnesota Twins, followed by two four-game series in Baltimore and Detroit, the team with the lowest payroll in the American League and second lowest in all of baseball is set to go from last to first.

Meanwhile, the two teams with the highest total payroll – the New York Yankees and Detroit Tigers – are not even going to make the playoffs.

So what’s the secret of the Rays’ success? Let rookie outfielder Fernando Pérez give you an insight. “The way this team is put together, it isn’t put together like the Yankees. It isn’t a hoard of superstars that are expected to do well,” he said.

“This team is built on solid pitching and unity. Nobody sticks out. To see us win a game, everybody comes in and does something. We don’t have the personalities that stand in the way of that.”

Improved pitching has been the key

Their team batting average of .261 places them 13th out of 14 teams in the American League. The Rays have five pitchers who have won 11 games or more, yet none has won more than 13. However, only Toronto can better their team of ERA of 3.78.

Their bullpen has been outstanding and as Pérez says, there seems to be a different hero every day.

So many times it has seemed the Rays would collapse; so many times they have managed to overcome adversity.

They lost seven games in a row going into the All Star break to fall half a game behind Boston. But it didn’t take them long to bounce back.

They lost key batters Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria, along with closer Troy Percival, through injury at a vital stage of the season, yet their replacements came through.

A team that shows steel and resilience has rewarded manager Joe Maddon’s patience.

Remember spring training when Shelley Duncan of the Yankees tried to make a statement by sliding into second base spikes up, catching Akinori Iwamura? Well, who are the tough guys now?

Tropicana Field is a home-from-home

Tampa’s record at ‘The Trop’ is outstanding. Despite the lack of atmosphere there, they have lost just 22 times in 77 games so far.

“Our focus has always been to win the East,” says Maddon. “At the end of the regular season, it’s about moving forward with home-field advantage. You look at our record at home and we want to play as many games as possible here.”

Back in March, it seemed inconceivable that the American League East would be won by a team other than the Yankees or the Red Sox. Even then, you would have picked the Toronto Blues Jays and Baltimore Orioles before the Rays.

Now, with little more than a week to go, David is about to slay not one but two Goliaths and win the toughest division in baseball.

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