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Saturday, December 20, 2014

In Praise of the Amazing Tampa Bay Rays

It’s early, there’s still plenty of time to collapse, the Yankees and Red Sox will catch em. Heck, even the Blue Jays will pass them up. They’re hot right now, we’ll see how long it lasts. I probably said those words, or at least thought them, several times during the course of the year. Well, it’s late September, football season is in full swing, and the effing Rays just clinched their first ever spot in the postseason. From worst to first. From joke to legit. The Tampa Bay Rays started off strongly and didn’t let down. They went head up with the Red Sox several times down the stretch and prevailed. They absolutely earned their spot in the playoffs, and they’ll be a dangerous team, too. So how did they do it? How was their turnaround possible?

The Rays completely rebuilt their team, even starting with their image by changing their team nickname and jerseys. They underwent a makeover and it worked. They brought in new players and got rid of old ones. They canned Elijah Dukes and traded Delmon Young for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett. They promoted Evan Longoria who might have been MVP had he not been hurt. The only thing better than his clutch hitting is his glove — something that cannot be overlooked. Even when Longoria got hurt, Willy Aybar — who went AWOL with Atlanta — stepped in and got several clutch hits. Carlos Pena returned to his slugger form the second half of the season and carried the offense. Dioner Navarro was the best catcher in the AL second to Joe Mauer. B.J. Upton may have had his issues with Joe Maddon, but he hit and provided defense in center. Carl Crawford had a down year and got injured, but Gabe Gross and Eric Hinske were more than capable fill-ins. And then there was the pitching.

Tampa’s pitching truly came together this year. Scott Kazmir was his usual, dominant self, and James Shields repeated his emerging-star performance from last year. Garza became a lynch pin this year, Edwin Jackson finally learned to control his pitches, and Andy Sonnanstine finally got the help he had always needed — a good defense and a good bullpen behind him. The Rays of the past that stunk usually were able to swing it pretty well. The difference between those crappy teams is that their pitching and defense has been outstanding this year. I think everyone needs to praise the Rays for their turnaround and for silencing ctheir ritics. Everyone was waiting for the other shoe to drop — for the Cinderella run to end — and it never happened. These guys shed losing and reputation aside and proved they could win.

I could go on and on about all their front office moves that paid off, and how well they did things, but I do believe a lot of it was luck. They took chances on several dudes — Willy Aybar, Cliff Floyd, Eric Hinske, Troy Percival — nothing but castoffs everywhere else. Even Carlos Pena fits that bill, too. And every single one of those guys paid off big time. It was a combination of excellent internal building through the draft (Longoria, Upton, Shields), through trades (Navarro, Jackson, Garza), and through lucky signings. And boy, did those pay off well for them. It’s pretty tough to root against the Rays now that they’ve made it, and I’ll only do that if they’re taking on the Angels. Until then, best of luck to them — they’ve earned it.



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