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Tampa Bay Rays VI: Wait ’til Next Year

Though the games are meaningless, it seems appropriate that the Yankees are finishing the 2009 season against the Rays. Tampa Bay was supposed to be in the thick of the AL East race and are the defending American League Champions. The Yankees, having replaced the Rays atop the division, hope to succeed them as pennant winners as well.

The Rays mediocre finish, nearly 20 games behind the Yankees in third place, feels like a disappointment, but it’s important to remember that this is a franchise that had won as many as 70 games just once prior to 2008. This has been the second-best season in Rays history by a dozen games. Entering the final series of the season, they Rays are just one game behind the Twins, who remain alive in the AL Central race.

The 2009 Rays suffered through brutal seasons from Dioner Navarro (.219/.259/.317), B.J. Upton (.238/.308/.362), and Pat Burrell (.226/.321/.376), and got just 67 games from second baseman Akinori Iwamura due to a knee injury, but benefited from what were likely flukey late-20s spikes from Ben Zobrist (.290/.399/.531) and Jason Bartlett (.319/.385/.492).

Carl Crawford bounced back from his disappointing 2008 campaign, but remains a good player rather than a great one. Nonetheless, the trade that sent Scott Kazmir and the $20 million left on his contract over the next two years to Anaheim suggests that the Rays will pick up Crawford’s $10-million option for 2010.

Kazmir was made expendable by the strong performance of 26-year-old rookie Jeff Niemann, a thick, 6-foot-9 righty, as well as the late-season arrival of 23-year-old righty Wade Davis, who has been dominant in three of his five September starts (though two of those came against the lowly Orioles) and good in the fourth. Niemann and Davis will start the final two games of the season against Andy Pettitte and A.J. Burnett.

Fellow rookie David Price will start tonight against fellow lefty CC Sabathia. Price was supposed to be the rookie sensation in the Rays’ rotation, but after spending April and most of May in the minors to suppress his innings total, he struggled with his control and the longball upon returning the majors. In his first 11 starts, he gave up 11 homers and walked 33 in 53 innings, which translates to 1.87 HR/9 and 5.6 BB/9.  As a result, he was averaging less than five innings per start and sported a 5.60 ERA.

In his 11 starts since then, however, Price has allowed just six more homers and walked just 19 in 68 1/3 innings (0.8 HR/9, 2.5 BB/9, almost 6 1/3 innings per start). The result has been a solid 3.82 ERA and a 6-3 record over that span. That’s the kind of progress the Yankees had hoped to see from Joba Chamberlain this year.

The rotation of Matt Garza, James Shields, Price, Niemann, and Davis is the primary reason the Rays will remain contenders in 2010, and the Yankees will get a preview of that in this final series. That seems like a good thing to me. Though Joe Girardi will continue to rotate days off through his lineup, facing good young pitchers will keep the Yankee hitters from falling into any bad habits in the process of playing out the string. Similarly, playoff starters Sabathia, Pettitte, and Burnett will be facing a solid lineup (fourth best in the AL on the year), rather than the glorified Triple-A squad run out by the Royals.

Meanwhile, the pesky Twins are forcing the Tigers to sweat out their Central Division title, and could force them to start Justin Verlander on Sunday, thus bumping him from what would otherwise be his Game 1 start in the ALDS. I’ll, of course, have an in-depth preview of that series next week. In the meantime here are some individual stats that are within reach for the Yankees this weekend:

CC Sabathia: a win tonight would be his 20th, a new career high. Six strikeouts would get him to 200.

A.J. Burnett: needs 8 Ks for 200.

Mark Teixeira: needs 1 homer for 40

Nick Swisher: needs 1 homer for 30

Derek Jeter: needs 2 homers for 20

Robinson Cano: needs 2 doubles for 50

Alex Rodriguez: needs 7 RBIs for 100 and two homers to tie Mark McGwire for 8th place all-time.

Derek Jeter: needs 4 RBIs for 70 (Jeter has reached 70 RBIs in all but two of his full seasons and missed by one last year. Leading off has cost him RBI opportunities this year in what has been one the best seasons of his career.) The Captain also needs four hits to tie Hall-0f-Fame shortstop Luke Appling for 48th all-time.

Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui rest today as Jerry Hairston plays left (and tests his wrist) and Jose Molina DHs. That gives Molina some at-bats before the postseason and allows Sabathia to work with Posada. Swisher bats fifth. Melky starts in center against the lefty Price.

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Tampa Bay Rays V: Gone But Not Forgotten

The Rays arrive in the Bronx today for a Labor Day doubleheader and resultant four-game series trailing the Red Sox by seven games in the Wild Card standings. The Yankees, meanwhile, hold a 7.5-game lead over Boston in the division. It’s thus fair to say that, as secure as the Yankees’ division lead feels, that’s how unlikely it is that the Rays are going to return to the post season.

Put more simply: the Rays are out of the race.

That doesn’t make the remaining seven games between the two teams meaningless (though the three in Tampa in October most likely will be by then), and it doesn’t make the Rays any less competitive. It does, however, deflate the excitement most had expected this September series between division rivals to bring.

Make no mistake, the Rays are rivals. They won the division last year and the two teams are roughly split in their season series to this point, the Yankees taking 6 of 11,but the Rays having scored one more run (60 to 59). Home field hasn’t been much advantage thus far, as the two teams have split six games in Tampa with the Yanks taking three of five in the Bronx. That said, the series has slowly tilted the Yankees way as the season has progressed, with the Rays taking three of the first five and the Yankees four of the last six.

Some accused the Rays of giving up on the season when the traded Scott Kazmir. I’m not entirely sure that’s the case, but the trade was clearly a hedge; Andrew Friedman didn’t want to get stuck without a playoff berth and the remainder of Kazmir’s contract ($20 million the next two years plus an option with a $2.5 million buyout) given the arrival of young, talented, team-controlled arms such as Jeff Niemann (12-5, 3.67 in his first full season), and 23-year-olds David Price and Wade Davis (7 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 1 BB, 9 K in his major league debut last night).

The Rays proved they were going for it when they benched Dioner Navarro and his .221/.252/.331 line and replace him via trade with Gregg Zaun, who has since hit .311/.333/.508. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. Look at the lineup at the end of this post for a clue as to why.

The last time the Yankees saw the Rays, B.J. Upton was leading off and Evan Longoria was hitting third. Now they’re hitting sixth (Longoria) and ninth (Upton). Save for a hot June, Upton has been punchless all year, and has hit just .225/.276/.335 with 2 homers and 12 walks since July 1. Longoria, meanwhile, got out to a big start, then did very little in June, July, and August, though he has turned it on of late, hitting .441 and slugging .853 during an active eight-game hitting streak.

All-Star Ben Zobrist replaces Longoria in the three-hole, but he seems to have run out of pixie dust. Since snapping a 12-game hitting streak on July 23, he’s hit a very ordinary .243/.357/.407, and with Akinori Iwamura back from an ACL injury, Zobrist is now a corner outfielder again, making that production all the less useful (though it’s a smidge more than the Rays were getting from Gabe Gross). New leadoff man Jason Bartlett seemed to be out of magic as well in July, but silenced doubters with a .357/.443/.577 August, though he’s cooled off again over his last ten games.

As for today’s double header, the Yankees have stacked the deck, throwing CC Sabathia in Game 1 and A.J. Burnett in the nightcap. Sabathia’s numbers over his last six starts are eyepopping: 5-0, 1.83 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 10.76 K/9, 7.57 K/BB. The Yankees have won his last seven starts, his last loss coming against the Rays on July 28.

CC goes against Matt Garza, who has spiked his strikeout rate this year and leads the league in fewest hits per nine innings (7.8), but the latter is due to an abnormally low .268 BABIP (though he was at .271 last year), and his home run rate has also spiked, giving him a higher ERA than he had a year ago. Garza’s allowed just 3 runs in 12 innings against the Yanks this year, but has posted a 6.00 ERA over his last five starts.

As for Burnett, everyone keeps talking about the fact that he hasn’t won a game since July 27, a stretch of seven starts, but the Yankees have won three of those starts and A.J. has four quality starts in that stretch, which includes his dominant outing against the Red Sox in that 15-inning scoreless affair on August 7. Still, two of his last three have been awful. With his first playoff start looming roughly a month away, he needs to use his remaining starts to rediscover that groove he had in July lest he become what I’d always feared he’d be, the 2009 version of Randy Johnson, who blew a pair of crucial ALDS Game 3s in his only two Yankee playoff appearances.

Facing Burnett will be Andy Sonnanstine, who initially looked like Kazmir’s replacement down the stretch until Davis announced his presence with authority last night. Not that it really matters. Though Sonnanstine spent all of July and August in the minors, the Yankees have already seen him thrice this year. Sonnanstine got the better of the Yanks the first two times (though without earning a decision either time), but the Yanks touched him up for four homers (by Tex, Swisher, Damon, and Jeter) on June 8, marking his career high for a single game.

Brett Gardner returns for today’s action. He’s playing center and batting ninth in the opener, with Melky in left, Hinske at DH, and Damon and Matsui on the bench. Nick Swisher bats second, Robinson Cano moves up to fifth, and Hinske, Melky, and Gardner, in that order, make up the bottom three.

I’m going to be car shopping today (my 12-year-old Saturn was totaled by a tree branch a month ago and I’ve been too busy in the interim to get to the dealers), so this post will have to serve game threads for both games. I’ll be back late tonight to wrap it all up.

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Tampa Bay Rays IV: The Gauntlet Begins

The Yankees made the most of their recent ten-game homestand, going 9-1 against the Tigers, Orioles, and A’s. That’s good, because now things get tough. The first seven games of this nine-game road trip are against the Rays and White Sox, both contending teams. Then, after a two-game stop in Toronto, they come home to play four against the Red Sox. That’s 11 of 13 games against contending teams.

The Rays are 6.5 games behind the first-place Yankees in the AL East, but the Pythagorean standings look like this:

BOS 56-41  -
NYY 56-42  .5
TBR 56-43  1

The Rays still aren’t getting much from B.J. Upton or Pat Burrell, and their catching duo of former Yankee farmhands Dioner Navarro and Michel Hernandez is almost single-handedly keeping them out of the Wild Card race. Jason Bartlett has cooled a bit since returning from the DL, but is still contributing a solid .296/.354/.417 from shorststop and fellow flukester Ben Zobrist is hot as ever, hitting .379/.463/.500 since July 7.

In the rotation, Scott Kazmir is back from the DL and with pitch Tuesday night, but he’s not been that much more effective since his return, going 0-2 with a 5.08 ERA and just one quality start in five tries. Wednesday night starter Matt Garza, however, has been his usual inconsistent, but often dominant self. Tonight the Rays throw James Shields, who is turning in a season that looks a lot like the one he had last year plus a few extra hits.

The Yankees counter with A.J. Burnett, who is looking for his eighth-straight quality start. A.J. already has two quality starts against the Rays in as many tries this season, including an eight-inning, three-hit, nine-strikeout effort a the Trop back on April 14.

One other thing about the Rays: they’ve made lefty reliever J.P Howell their closer. Since June 1, Howell has posted a 1.14 ERA, 0.89 WHIP, and 11.03 K/9. His only two blown saves during that stretch came in the eighth inning against the Yankees the last time they were in Tampa. In neither case did he allow a run, and in one he didn’t even allow a hit (though he did walk in a run).

The Yankees are sticking with the extra reliever for now rather than calling up a replacement for Brett Gardner. Everyone’s in his usual spot in tonight’s lineup.

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Tampa Bay Rays III: The Thunder From Down Under

Coming off their World Series appearance last year, the Rays were expected to be one of the best teams in baseball yet again in 2009, but two months into the season, they have yet to be a factor in the AL East race. It’s not for lack of trying. The Rays have the second-best Pythagorean record in all of baseball (behind the Dodgers). They are second only to the Yankees with 5.57 runs scored per game, and have been better than average at keeping runs off the board, ranking sixth in the AL in least runs allowed per game.

What’s gone wrong is some bad luck in one-run games (they’re 6-11 in such contests), and some bad luck in April. Since the beginning of May, the Rays gone 19-14, winning at a .576 clip. That despite the litany of other things that have gone wrong for them.

Expected to be a boon to the offense, designated hitter Pat Burrell landed on the DL in early May with a neck problem having hit just one home run and slugged .315 to that point. Second baseman Akinori Iwamura was lost for the season two weeks ago after tearing his anterior and medial collateral ligaments on a collision at the keystone. Slick-fielding shortstop Jason Bartlett was off to a fluky start, hitting .373/.418/.596, but he sprained his ankle in the same game, landing on the DL.

The Rays new and improved right-field platoon of lefty Matt Joyce, acquired from the Tigers in the offseason, and righty Fernando Perez never got off the ground when Perez dislocated his wrist in spring training, ending his season. The Rays then inexplicably kept Joyce in Triple-A for most of the first two months of the season while persisting with the unexceptional Gabe Gross (.256/.362/.400) as the strong side of that platoon.

The Rays have finally called up Joyce, who hit .315/.408/.530 for Durham, as well as his Triple-A teammate David Price, who was supposed to fill the rotation spot vacated by the man the Rays traded for Joyce, Edwin Jackson. Price was kept down because of arbitration and innings limit concerns, but now that he’s here, he’s replacing the injured Scott Kazmir (quad), not Jackson or Jackson’s early-season replacement, rookie Jeff Niemann. Then again, maybe that’s just as well. Kazmir posted a 7.69 ERA before hitting the DL, and Andy Sonnanstine, who will start Monday, has posted a 7.07 mark.

As for Price, after a shaky, abbreviated first outing, he dominated the Twins for 5 2/3 innings his last time out, striking out 11 against just two walks while allowing just one run on five hits. He takes on CC Sabathia this afternoon in what should be a thrilling pitchers duel. Over his last five starts, Sabathia has gone 4-0 with a 2.08 ERA. In those five starts he’s averaged nearly eight innings per start, and held opponents to a .187/.242/.259 line.

Francisco Cervelli will continue to catch Sabathia this afternoon. Jorge Posada will DH. Evan Longoria, who leads the majors with 55 RBIs, is expected to return to the Rays lineup after missing a couple of games with a tight left hamstring.

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Tampa Bay Rays II: The Desuckafying

Yes, the Yankees have lost all five of their games against the Red Sox this year, but they’ve actually outplayed Boston the rest of the time. The Yankees are 13-8 (.619) against their other opponents (O’s, Rays, Royals, Indians, A’s, Tigers, Angels), while the Red Sox are 12-10 (.545) against essentially the same group of teams (O’s, Rays, Indians, A’s, Angels).

The Yankees may have a mere .500 winning percentage, but the Rays are four games below .500 at .429 and lost their only series against the Yanks thus far their season. The Rays’ haven’t won more than two games in a row all season and have a 1-6-2 record in series.

The catch is that the Rays haven’t been bad, they’ve just been unlucky. Based on run differential, the Rays should be just a half game behind the Red Sox at 15-13, rather than 5.5 games behind Boston as they currently are. The problem is the Rays aren’t giving themselves much margin for error. They’re the fourth stingiest team in the American League in terms of runs allowed per game, but they’re scoring runs more often than just five teams in the AL.

The underperforming offense can be pinned to differing degrees on B.J. Upton and Dioner Navarro, who have been complete black holes for the Rays thus far this year (Upton: .157/.276/.205, 27 OPS+; Navarro: .179/.198/.262, 18 OPS+), and Pat Burrell, who enters tonight’s game with just one home run and a .322 slugging percentage. Upton has gone 1-for-18 over his last four games. Burrell has had just two extra-base hits in his last 75 plate appearances. Evan Longoria is mashing, leading the majors with in slugging with a .365/.417/.721 line, Carlos Peña is leading the majors with 11 home runs, Carl Crawford is leading the majors with 19 stolen bases and has yet to be caught, and Jason Bartellet is in the top-10 in the majors in batting average, but Longoria, Peña and Bartlett are the only every-day Rays starters with multiple homers on the season, and Bartlett especially is playing way over his head. Assuming the Rays’ lineup will balance out and for a few more breaks will go their way, they should be fine, but they’re creating an opportunity for the Yankees with their early struggles.

The Rays’ roster is unchanged from the last time they faced the Yankees, though former Yankee farm hand Michel Hernandez replaced Shawn Riggans (15-day DL: right shoulder tendonitis) as the back-up catcher after I wrote my initial preview. They send Andy Sonnanstine to the hill tonight. Sonnanstine got a no-decision after holding the Yankees to two runs over five innings on April 15 in a game the Yankees eventually won with a run of closer Troy Percival in the ninth inning. Sonnanstine has completed six innings just once this season and carries a 6.75 ERA into tonight’s game.

The Yankees counter with A.J. Burnett, whose best start of the year was his eight dominant innings against the Rays on April 14 (8 IP, 3 H, 2 R, 1 BB, 9 K). Burnett walked seven in his next start, then coughed up eight runs to the Red Sox in the start after that. His last time out, against the Angels, he was good enough, allowing four runs over seven innings and walking just one in a game the Yankees won with three runs in the eighth.

Note those combacks. The Yankees have scored 2.38 runs per game in the seventh, eight, and ninth innigs alone. The major league average is just 1.47 R/G in the seventh, eighth, and ninth. Meanwhile, the April 15 game mentioned above was the only save the Rays bullpen has blown all season.

Tampa Bay Rays

Tampa Bay Rays

2008 Record: 97-65 (.599), AL Champs
2008 Pythagorean Record: 92-70 (.568)

Manager: Joe Maddon
General Manager: Andrew Friedman

Home Ballpark (multi-year Park Factors): Tropicana Field (102/103)

Who’s Replaced Whom:

  • Pat Burrell replaces Eric Hinske and Jonny Gomes
  • Gabe Kapler replaces Cliff Floyd
  • Jeff Niemann replaces Edwin Jackson (and is holding a spot for David Price)
  • Brian Shouse replaces Trever Miller
  • Joe Nelson replaces Jason Hammel
  • Lance Cormier replaces Gary Glover and Chad Bradford (DL)

25-man Roster:

1B – Carlos Peña (L)
2B – Akinori Iwamura (L)
SS – Jason Bartlett (R)
3B – Evan Longoria (R)
C – Dioner Navarro (S)
RF – Gabe Gross (L)
CF – B.J. Upton (R)
LF – Carl Crawford (L)
DH – Pat Burrell (R)

Bench:

S – Willy Aybar (1B/3B)
S – Ben Zobrist (UT)
R – Gabe Kapler (OF)
R – Shawn Riggans (C)

Rotation:

R – James Shields
L – Scott Kazmir
R – Matt Garza
R – Andy Sonnanstine
R – Jeff Niemann

Bullpen:

R – Troy Percival
R – Grant Balfour
L – J.P. Howell
R – Dan Wheeler
L – Brian Shouse
R – Joe Nelson
R – Lance Cormier

15-day DL: RHP – Chad Bradford (elbow surgery), RHP – Jason Isringhausen (rehab from September elbow surgery), OF – Fernando Perez (broken wrist)

Projected Lineup:

R – B.J. Upton (CF)
L – Carl Crawford (LF)
R – Evan Longoria (3B)
L – Carlos Peña (1B)
R – Pat Burrell (DH)
L – Gabe Gross (RF)
S – Dioner Navarro (C)
L – Akinori Iwamura (2B)
R – Jason Bartlett (SS)

Notes: Gross will platoon with Gabe Kapler and Ben Zobrist in right field.

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Uh Oh

Don’t look now, but the Rays have done an excellent job of restocking on the cheap for another run in 2009. As I write in my new piece over on SI.com on the Milton Bradley and Pat Burrell deals:

[w]ith Price, Burrell and the Joyce/Perez platoon representing significant upgrades on Jackson, Floyd, Gross and assorted fill-ins, the Rays could very well repeat or even improve on their surprising 2008 showing, much the way the 1992 Braves surpassed their worst-to-first showing the previous year.

Indeed, with Upton, 24, having regained his home run stroke in the postseason following a year in which his power had been sapped by a torn labrum, Longoria entering his first full season after being named AL Rookie of the Year and Crawford looking to bounce back entering his walk year, the Rays could experience a significant increase in their run scoring in 2009, while a strong rookie season from Price, 23, would help balance out any regression experienced by the other starters. Meanwhile, having the right-handed Burrell in a lineup with fellow righty sluggers Upton and Longoria makes the Rays well-prepared for their impending AL East showdowns with lefty aces CC Sabathia of the Yankees and Jon Lester of the Red Sox following a season in which Tampa Bay struggled against lefty starters. Thus, in part due to their sizeable head-start, the Rays have kept pace with the Yankees’ $423.5 million spending spree at the low, low cost of $16 million.

Taking Stock

Untitled It’s strangely fitting that the Phillies and Rays are meeting in the latter’s first World Series. When then-Devil Rays general manager Chuck LaMar was assembling what would be the inaugural Rays roster in late 1997, he decided to build his team around pitching and defense. Any good defensive team needs a strong defensive shortstop, so LaMar worked out a deal with the Phillies to draft a young outfielder out of the Astros’ system in that November’s expansion draft and flip him to Philadelphia for the Phillies good-field/no-hit shortstop Kevin Stocker.

Stocker had taken over the Phillies shortstop job as a rookie in July of their pennant-winning season of 1993 and had since established himself as one of the game’s best defenders at the position. A 27-year-old switch-hitter who wouldn’t price himself off the team, Stocker was exactly what LaMar was looking for to anchor his new team’s infield. The problem was that LaMar had failed to notice the steep drop off in Stocker’s defense during the 1997 season. Stocker’s glove recovered in 1998, but he had his worst season at the plate, hitting just .208/.282/.313, and his season was mercifully ended a month early when his hand was broken by a pitch. The next year his bat picked up, but his glove work declined again, and knee tendonitis ended his season soon after the All-Star break.

That winter, LaMar scrapped his defense-first concept, signing aging sluggers Greg Vaughn and Vinnie Castilla to join Jose Canseco and original Ray Fred McGriff in the Tampa lineup. Stocker, the symbol of the Rays’ abandoned approach of just two years earlier, was released in May. Despite LaMar’s shift in focus, the Devil Rays of 2000 once again finished a distant last in the American League in runs scored. Making things worse, the young outfielder Lamar had used as currency to acquire stocker was a 23-year-old Bobby Abreu, who hit .312/.409/.497 as the Phillies’ right fielder in the Rays’ inaugural season of 1998 and proceeded to perform at a Hall of Fame level over his eight and a half seasons in Philadelphia.

Now, a decade later, LaMar is the Phillies’ scouting director, and his team is in the World Series against a Rays’ team that produced its first winning season, first playoff berth, first division title, and first pennant in part due to a renewed focus on pitching and defense. The signature player in that renewed focus is Jason Bartlett, a good-field/no-hit shortstop who was acquired for a talented young outfielder. The trick being that Bartlett wasn’t the key player in the deal that brought him to Tampa Bay from the Twins, righty starter Matt Garza was, and the outfielder he was traded for, Delmon Young, is no Bobby Abreu, which just goes to prove that intention is only as good as its execution.

To be fair, LaMar deserves to have a better legacy in Tampa Bay. It was under Lamar that the Rays drafted Aubrey Huff, Carl Crawford, Rocco Baldelli, James Shields, B.J. Upton, Andy Sonnanstine, and Young, and it was Lamar who fleeced the Mets in the Scott Kazmir deal. Still, it took a change in ownership and an overhaul of the front office for the Rays to figure out how to make proper use of that bounty.

My point in all of this is that, even in a World Series in which the two combatants have just one prior championship between them (the lowest combined total since 1980 when the Phillies and Royals met, both looking for their first), there is still some history here.

For more from me on this match-up, check out my position-by-position breakdown and preview of Game 1, both up on SI.com.

Heat Rays

The Tampa Bay Rays are a good baseball team. In fact, they’re the best team in baseball. I give four reasons why over at SI.com.

Tampa Bay Rays VI: How They Done It Edition

The Rays enter their final series against the Yankees in a virtual dead-heat with the Angels and Cubs for the best record in the majors. Everyone saw the Angels and Cubs coming, but even the bold prediction made by Nate Silver’s PECOTA only had the Rays winning 88 games, a total they can achieve with a victory over the Yanks tonight. So what happened? How did a franchise that had never won more than 70 games in a single season and had finished in last place in the AL East in all but one of it’s previous ten seasons suddenly find themselves atop not just the most competitive division on baseball, but challenging for the best record in the game?

Untitled The short answer is pitching and defense and just enough offense to make the first two count. A year ago, the Rays went 66-96 while enduring by far the worst defense in the majors according to defensive efficiency. This year they have the majors’ best defensive efficiency. A year ago they turned just 65 percent of all balls put in play against them into outs. This year, they’re turning 70.9 percent of those balls into outs. That’s no small matter. The Rays had roughly 4,500 balls put in play against them last year (not counting home runs, which are typically not playable by the defense). The difference between a 65 percent and 70.9 percent defensive efficiency on 4,500 balls in play is about 265 outs, or the equivalent of nearly ten shutouts. Taken another way, the improvement in the Rays defense has shortened their opponents scoring opportunities by an average of 1.6 outs per game over the entire season. There’s a lot of rounding going on in those numbers, but the impact is clear and impressive, and quite reminiscent of how the Rockies got to the World Series last year.

This improvement was no accident. It is exactly what the Rays had in mind when they asked that shortstop Jason Bartlett be included in the deal that sent Delmon Young and others to the Twins for Matt Garza and another pitching prospect. Bartlett has disappointed in the field, but the team’s decision to move Akinori Iwamura to second base and (eventually) install Evan Longoria at third base has had a lot to do with their improved defense, and the overall effect of an infield of Longoria, Bartlett, Iwamura, and Carlos Peña has done wonders for the Rays’ pitching staff, as has having B.J. Upton in center field for a full season to complement Carl Crawford in left.

One might suspect that superior pitching deserves some of the credit for this statistical improvement on defense, but research has shown that good pitchers to not consistently post above-average numbers on balls in play. Rather, I offer that it’s the defense that has helped the pitching improve. If a pitcher knows that his defenders are more likely to catch up with his mistakes, he’s more likely to pitch with the confidence necessary to challenge hitters, which is a key to success in the major leagues. (Don’t take my word for it, click the Rockies link above and see what Brian Fuentes had to say about the Rockies’ defense last year).

Consider the improvement made by former Dodger prospect Edwin Jackson. Last year he walked 4.92 men per nine innings and posted a 5.76 ERA. This year his walks are down by more than one per nine innings and his ERA is down to a league-average 4.06. Consider also sophomore Andy Sonnanstine, a pitcher who walks almost no one to begin with. Sonnanstine has seen his strikeout rate dip by more than a K per nine innings this year and has been handsomely rewarded for his increased reliance on his defense as his ERA had dropped from 5.85 to 4.47.

Opposing batters are having roughly league average success on balls in play against Jackson and Sonnanstine this year, which is a huge improvement over what happened last year when Sonnanstine’s BABIP was .333 and Jackson’s was .349. Put those two behind lefty ace Scott Kazmir, James Shields, who emerged as a solid number two last year, and Garza, and the Rays have one of the best rotations in baseball. In fact, the Blue Jays, led by Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett, are the only American League team with a lower starters’ ERA than Tampa this season. A year ago, the Rays had the third-worst starters’ ERA in baseball.

The Rays have experienced a similar turnaround in their bullpen, which was baseball’s worst last year with a staggering 6.16 ERA but has shaved more than 2.5 runs off that mark this year to post the third-best pen ERA in the AL. One big reason for that has been the emergence of 25-year-old lefty J.P. Howell, a failed starter victimized by a .381 BABIP a year ago. Coming into this season, Howell hadn’t pitched in relief since rookie ball, but with that improved defense behind him, he’s thriving in his new role. With veteran Trever Miller around as a match-up lefty (southpaws are hitting .207/.313/.280 against him this year), Joe Maddon has used Howell for longer stints. Howell has responded with a 2.44 ERA and more than a strikeout per inning while leading the Rays’ pen in innings pitched.

Veteran Dan Wheeler, acquired at last year’s trading deadline for utility man Ty Wigginton, has been another boon to the pen, filling in ably when rejuvenated closer Troy Percival has gone down with injuries. An even lower-profile acquisition from last year’s deadline, Grant Balfour, picked up from Milwaukee for Seth McClung, didn’t hit the major league roster until the end of May, but he’s been a revelation ever since, posting a 1.63 ERA and striking out 12.87 men per nine innings. After missing most of 2005 and 2006 due to both elbow and shoulder surgery, former Twins prospect Balfour was similarly dominant in the minors last year and could prove to be a real find, provided he doesn’t get hurt again.

Combine those drastic and related improvements in pitching and defense, and the end result is a tremendous decrease in the number of runs the Rays have allowed. Last year, the then-Devil Rays allowed 944 runs. This year, with just 18 games left to play, they’ve allowed a mere 582. That’s an average of nearly two runs less per game (1.79 to be exact). With their opponents scoring just 4.04 runs per game, the Rays offense has had a much easier row to hoe, which is good, because the offense is the one thing that’s gone backwards this year, though that was the bargain the team intended to strike when it traded Young.

That’s why the Rays have gone from worst to first, but now that they’ve done that, they seem to have a momentum of their own. They’ve won six games more than their run differential would suggest, and early August injuries to stars Longoria and Crawford haven’t slowed them down a lick. In fact, August was their best month of the season as they went 21-7 (.750). You can credit manager Joe Maddon with some of that. As the Yankees saw in spring training, this Rays team has fight. Indeed, after opening September with a 1-6 skid against intradivision opponents (including dropping two of three to the Yankees at home), the Rays staged a pair of late-game rallies to fend off the charging Red Sox at Fenway. On Tuesday they staged a ninth-inning comeback against Jonathan Papelbon to keep the Red Sox from passing them in the standings, and Wednesday night they matched the Sox zero-for-zero for 13 innings before dropping a three-spot in the top of the 14th to push the Sox back another game.

The Rays haven’t changed much since we last saw them. Longoria has been activated, but has yet to return to action (though he could do so this weekend). Former A’s first baseman Dan Johnson has been added to the Rays stock of September call-ups and made an immediate impact with the game-tying home run off Papelbon on Tuesday night in his first at-bat in the majors since April 2. The Rays have also called up former Yankee farmhand-turned-minor league journeyman Michel Hernandez. Hernandez has been with five organizations in five years since making his major league debut as a Yankee in 2003, and has yet to see major league action for any of them. This is his second stint in the Rays’ organization in that span.

Tampa Bay Rays V: Too Little, Too Late Edition

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Congratulations to the Rays on their first winning season, playoff berth, and division championship: You’ve come a long way, baby.

The Yankees are 7-5 against the Rays this year, which is a solid showing against a team that leads them by 12 games in the standings. Sadly, it’s done them little good. The Yankees could sweep their remaining six games against Tampa Bay, match their record against third-part opponents, and still finish six games out in the AL East.

We’re in an odd stage of the Yankees’ season. Best I can tell, just about all of the fanbase and most of the media have come to grips with the reality that the Yankees will miss the postseason for the first time since 1993, but because they’re still “just” seven games out of the Wild Card with 26 left to play, the team itself, as well at its broadcasters, need to at least pretend they’re still in it. It’s true that it ain’t over ’til it’s over, but the Yankees have to gain one game on the Red Sox over the course of each remaining series to arrive in Boston on September 26 in position to pass Boston with a series win, and even that doesn’t account for the second-place team in the AL Central, whom the Yankees also trail in the Wild Card race. It’s just not going to happen.

What’s left now is saying farewell to Yankee Stadium, preparing for next year–be it by giving Alfredo Aceves a start or two in place of Pavano or Ponson, letting Brett Gardner start in center field, or hoping Hideki Matsui gets on a hot streak to increase his trade value–and Mike Mussina’s pursuit of 20 wins, which continues tonight in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Mussina enters tonight’s game with 16 wins and will have five starts left afterwards (against the Mariners, Rays, White Sox, Orioles, Blue Jays, and Red Sox). The Yankees have won Mussina’s last six starts, but Moose earned the win in just three of them due to late-breaking run support. Still, Mussina’s been excellent over that stretch, posting 2.93 ERA and averaging 6 2/3 innings. In fact, over his last 17 starts, Mussina has a 2.92 ERA and has averaged nearly 6 2/3 innings per start. Only once over that stretch has he failed to complete six innings and only once has he allowed more than four runs (both coming in the same game against the Orioles). Still, he has just 9 wins in those 17 starts, due in part to losing scores such as 4-2 (twice), 3-2, and 2-1. That makes four wins in six starts a tall order, and four wins in five starts should he lose tonight extremely unlikely.

Moose’s mount opponent tonight is Matt Garza, who has displayed a Verlander-like inconsistency. Over his last nine starts, Garza has held the opposition scoreless four times, including two shutouts. In the other five games, he has allowed 24 runs in 27 1/3 innings. The trend: three of those four scoreless outings came against Toronto. The exception: one of the shutouts was a two-hit, nine-K performance against the Rangers in Arlington. Garza has faced the Yankees once this year, shutting them out over seven innings back on May 12. In his next start, he gave up seven runs in 4 1/3 innings. Such is Garza.

No Excuses

Both Garza and ace Scott Kazmir (who faces Darrell Rasner on Thursday) spent time on the DL early in the season. Carl Crawford and rookie sensation Evan Longoria are on the DL now, with Crawford likely out for the year. Rocco Baldelli missed most of the season, though he’s recently returned as Cliff Floyd’s platoon partner at DH. Floyd also spent time on the DL earlier in the season, as did Longoria’s predecessor/replacement Willy Aybar, All-Star catcher Dioner Navarro, infielder Ben Zobrist (who is currently platooning with Eric Hinske in left field), last year’s breakout star Carlos Peña, shortstop Jason Bartlett, and a handful of relievers, among them closer Troy Percival, who is due to return from his third DL stint tonight, and last year’s closer Al Reyes, who pitched himself off the team after returning from his DL stint. Beyond that, Crawford was below average when healthy, Bartlett’s been a huge disappointment on both sides of the ball, and B.J. Upton is slugging a mere .397 with just 8 homers after slugging .508 with 24 jacks in fewer plate appearances last year.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver