I’ve done it. With the Pittsburgh Pirates rounding up year 16 of their rebuilding plan, I’ve decided to hop on the bandwagon of the Tampa Bay Rays. I’m from Pittsburgh so I have to support my team, but still, can you blame me for shamelessly falling for a team I knew next to little about last year, a team that is hundreds of miles from where I live? What’s not to love about this team who last year finished an MLB worst 66-96, who now is heading into arguably the most important series of its brief 11-year history against the Boston Red Sox.
In the midst of a three game series the Rays currently hold the second best record in baseball and sit one half of a game above the Red Sox in arguably the toughest division in baseball, the American League East.
This is a team whose opening day payroll in 2008 was just below $44 Million. Compare such a number to the Red Sox who opened just over $133 Million (fourth highest in the majors) or the third place New York Yankees at a bit over $209 (highest in majors).
So how can you not cheer for an organization which faithfully worked and put their faith in their minor league system, no matter how tough the growing pains would be? This is an organization which was smart enough to let talented players like Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes go because of their constant hot-headed behavior.
What’s not to like about the loads of young talent in their starting rotation and bullpen. Twenty-four year-old left-hander Scott Kazmir is turning in his fourth straight 10-win season at starting pitcher. Kazmir heads a rotation that features James Shields, Edwin Jackson, Matt Garza, and Andy Sonnanstine, all of whom have at least 11 wins and none are under the age of 26. The bullpen is has been maybe the most surprising part of the team. Journeymen Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour each have an ERA under 2.50.
Youngster and converted starter J.P. Howell has an ERA of 2.51 down from last year when it was 7.59. Finally we get to Troy Percival who at 39 years old has 27 saves this year, the most he’s had since 2004 despite injury trouble this season. Still, bullpen is not the only part responsible for the turnaround.
Evan Longoria, a lock for American League Rookie of the year has provided the offense with some rejuvenation. It has come at a much needed time while Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton are producing below their career averages. Still you have to support Carl Crawford who has been in the organization since he was drafted in 1999. This is his first year with a winning record in the majors after years of agony. Carlos Pena has been another huge factor ever since last year when he turned his career around with personal bests in home runs and RBIs. Pena also has had a down year as far as his batting average goes, but the Rays also have had catcher Dioner Navarro step up as he made his first All-Star appearance this season.
Still, the Devil Rays resurgence would not have been possible without manager Joe Maddon. Maddon is widely regarded as one of the more intelligent men in baseball. He is also known for his willingness to take risks and discipline his players when they need it (earlier in the year Maddon benched B.J. Upton for failure to hustle). Maddon came into locker room and set a precedent and the rest of the Rays followed suit.
So as the Rays’ regular season winds down and the playoffs begin I’d encourage people to catch as many of their games as possible. This is a team that has made one of the biggest turnarounds in sports history. Almost a shoe-in for the playoffs the Rays are almost certain to entertain, and when they do, feel free to hop on the bandwagon too; I won’t blame you.