Playoffs or not, Rays’ resurgence has been remarkable
NEW YORK – History will forget about the Rays if they fail to complete their improbable run. Few remember that the 2006 Astros went from 7 1/2 games out with 11 to go to a half-game out with three left before finishing just short of the Cardinals for the National League Central title. Or that the 1988 Tigers were six out with 11 left and fell a game shy of the Red Sox in the old American League East.
But playing meaningful games in September is an experience that will never leave these young Rays.
“We have a lot of young guys that some of this is new to,” center fielder B.J. Upton said, “and they’re out getting a taste of it right now, and that’s going to help them down the road.”
The Rays may have just dropped three of four to the Yankees, but the Red Sox have lost 12 of their last 15, are falling apart and only hold a two-game lead on Tampa Bay in the AL Wild Card race.
Regardless of how the Rays performed against the Yankees, and regardless of the fact there’s less than a week remaining, two back with six to go doesn’t seem so daunting.
“We’re very fortunate that Baltimore has played as well as they have,” Rays manager Joe Maddon (pictured right by The Associated Press) said. “They played well against us also. They have a nice team, they have a bunch of veterans. So yeah, we’re very fortunate, there’s no question. … I’m not disheartened. I believe we can do this, I believe our players do also. We have to be more efficient on offense.”
The Rays are still in it this late because they pitch and play defense. Their starting rotation has the lowest ERA in the AL (3.51), and they have a chance to become just the seventh AL team since 1970 to lead the league in both total ERA and fielding percentage (they rank second and first, respectively, in the two categories).
But they just don’t hit enough.
Even while taking three of four from the Red Sox over the weekend, the Rays hit just .226 in the series. Before a 15-run barrage against the Yankees on Thursday, they were hitting They’re hitting .224 on this road trip combined, and their batting average sits at just .215 in their last nine games.
It’s very simple with the Rays: To win, they need to keep the score real low.
And when 11 of your last 14 games to finish the season are against the two teams that have scored the most runs in baseball, eventually the odds will turn against you.
“It’s just the way it is,” Maddon said. “We know this is our method, and you know that you’re normally going to have to keep the other team down. We’re normally not going to score a lot of runs.”
Playoffs or not, though, what the Rays have done is truly remarkable.
Their $41 million payroll is four times less than that of the Red Sox (about $161 million) and almost five times less than that of the Yankees ($202 million), and they let go of almost everyone this offseason – from Carl Crawford to Carlos Pena to Matt Garza to Rafael Soriano. But somehow, Maddon and Andrew Friedman continue to churn out winning ballclubs.
The Rays have now clinched four straight winning seasons, still have a shot at their third postseason appearance in four years and, at 12-9, are on their way to their first ever winning September.
“We always thought we’d have a chance; we all thought we were still in it,” infielder Sean Rodriguez said. “We never lost hope, just because we knew the teams we played and we knew we could beat them.”
The Rays found themselves 10 games back in the AL Wild Card race on Aug. 7, but thanks to great starting pitching, air-tight defense and the bats of Upton, Evan Longoria and rookie Desmond Jennings (pictured left with Upton by the AP), they’ve since gone 27-16.
Now they’re trying to do what no team in baseball history ever has – make the playoffs despite trailing by nine games in September.
It’d be foolish to count them out now.
“A lot of people didn’t give us a chance, obviously because of the two teams in our division,” Upton said. “But, again, we find a way to do it, found a way to keep ourselves in this race.”