Can Rays reach Everest: Yanks’ 125 wins of ’98?

Tampa first baseman Carlos Pena (left) and shortstop Jason Bartlett celebrate the Rays' 8-6 victory over the Yankees in New York.
(AP Photo)

NEW YORK – Only 10 teams in American League history have started better than the 2010 Tampa Bay Rays. Six won the World Series. Three more made it. The other won the most games in regular-season history.

One of those 10 was the 1998 New York Yankees, whose final record of 125-50 is the Everest of baseball, a seemingly unscalable monolith. While this is not to say the Rays are Sir Edmund Hillary, it should be known that people within the game are starting to utter the name of the ’10 Rays with that of New York’s beloved jewel, sacrilege be damned.

“They’re ’98 Yankees good,” one National League scout said prior to the Rays’ 8-6 victory Thursday at Yankee Stadium that stretched their record to 30-11 and their AL East lead over New York to five. In a two-game sweep, the Rays lit up the Yankees’ Nos. 2 and 3 starters for 13 runs, hit five home runs, stole six bases and thrived with their fourth- and fifth-best starters, ERA-wise, on the mound.

One fourth of the way through the season, the Rays are smashing even their own expectations – and the standard they set going to the World Series in 2008. They have scored 225 runs, second to the Yankees. They have allowed 128, second to San Diego. Their plus-97 run differential blows away that of the ’98 Yankees, who started 31-10 with a plus-70 differential.

The Rays hit. They pitch. They catch. They run. They throw. They move runners over. They take the extra base. They work deep into games. They hold leads. They hit in the clutch. They utilize their depth. They rely on a sage, level-headed manager.

Sound familiar?

“We ain’t the ’98 Yankees yet because we haven’t won a championship,” Rays outfielder Carl Crawford(notes) said. “It’s still early. But it’s different than ’08. We’re more talented. We’re just a group of guys that all have the same goal in mind, and that’s to win.”

It’s not just the ’98 Yankees against whom the Rays stack up. It’s historic teams across baseball.

The best 41-game start in modern history came from the 1984 Detroit Tigers, who went 35-6. The Rays are the second AL team since those Tigers to allow 128 runs or fewer in their first 41 games, and they’re the only team aside from the Tigers to do so while scoring more than 204 runs.

Detroit’s plus-112 run differential remains the standard for a season’s quarter pole. The 1939 Yankees’ plus-411 is the best in history, and the Rays are on pace to score 889 runs and allow 506 – a plus-383.

Starting pitching paces the Rays’ success, and it’s no surprise that the 268 innings from their rotation leads the AL. Tampa Bay averages 6.537 per start. The ’98 Yankees’ starters threw 1,061 1/3 innings. Their average: 6.549 each start.

“It’s a long season,” Yankees manager Joe Girardi said, “and you can’t make too much of a few games.”

No, you can’t. The scout may have. It’s easy, however, to love the Rays – how they’re run as an organization by general manager Andrew Friedman, how they’re managed by Joe Maddon and how their players come into Yankee Stadium, a house of horrors for so many other teams, and pocket a pair of victories like a hustler at a pool hall: Bing, bang, boom.

“It’s a good, mature balance,” said first baseman Carlos Pena(notes), who hit two of the Rays’ four home runs Thursday. “We demand things out of ourselves. We play our game. That’s our only focus. And when you think like that, it’s so much easier to handle. When you think too far ahead, it’s too much to take in.”

The Rays were guilty of doing so last season. They won the pennant in ’08, returned their entire team and signed Pat Burrell(notes) as designated hitter. The Burrell move bombed, and with more than 10 percent of their payroll devoted to him, it was the sort of failure that cripples less-capable low-revenue franchises. The Rays released him, shook it off and called up Hank Blalock(notes). They’ll try him out for a while, and if it doesn’t work they can call upon Desmond Jennings(notes), a dynamic outfield prospect who could allow Ben Zobrist(notes) to play second base full-time, a position now shared among him, Reid Brignac(notes) and Sean Rodriguez(notes).

Depth, as much as anything, defines the Rays, and it’s why the ’98 Yankees comparisons hold water. No one on that team hit 30 home runs. It had only two Hall of Famers, Derek Jeter(notes) and Mariano Rivera(notes) (unless the voters feel generous and reward Andy Pettitte(notes) or Jorge Posada(notes)). Paul O’Neill, Scott Brosius and Chad Curtis played the most games. Hideki Irabu started 28 times.

And yet they had a je ne sais quoi – French for high on-base percentage – that allowed them to trample teams. They scored 965 runs. Ten players hit double-digit homers. Six more had 10-plus stolen bases. No starter finished with an ERA better than 3.13, none worse than 4.24, quite an accomplishment in the heyday of steroids (with which, it should be noted, players on the ’98 Yankees were rather familiar).

Two years earlier, the Yankees had won their first championship with a core of Jeter, Pettitte and Rivera that remains. These Rays don’t have that ring, and they’re a significantly younger team than the ’98 Yankees, whose average age was 30.4. The Rays, as currently constituted, are 28.1 years old, the sixth-least-wizened team in baseball. Seventeen players on their 25-man roster were born in the 1980s. Their oldest player, Gabe Kapler(notes), is 34.

Maddon doesn’t take that for granted. He changes lineups almost daily to keep his players fresh. He lets his starters work deep into games, 33 of 41 starts going six innings or more, to give his bullpen sufficient rest. They’re not complaining. The best 41-game stretch the World Series-worthy ’08 Rays managed was 29-12.

The 30-11 mark puts them at the cusp of elite company. In addition to the 10 AL teams, seven more from the NL have been 31-10 or better since 1900. Those 17 teams averaged 104 victories, a number that, even in the stacked AL East, the Rays seem eminently capable of reaching.

“I don’t compare no teams with nobody,” said Don Zimmer, the Yankees’ bench coach in ’98 and now a Rays senior advisor. “But we got a good team.”

Just how good remains to be seen.

They’re 17-4 on the road. They won’t sustain that. They’re 13-7 at home. They’ll probably improve upon that. Keeping up such a huge run differential over an entire season seems impossible. But then the Rays are not hitting to their standard, even with the lofty number of runs scored.

Internally, the Rays considered the first quarter of their season to be easy, schedule-wise. They played almost as many games against the weak AL West (14) as they did the East (18). Then again, they faced left-handed starters 19 times, more than any team in the big leagues, and went 14-5 in games against them.

For every negative there’s a positive, for every naysayer a yaysayer.

“We’re not going to count our eggs now,” Pena said. “We’re not going to look at our basket. We can figure out how full it is at the end.”

One hundred twenty-five wins full? A little lofty, even for a team this good. As long as the Rays finish the season with a ring, they won’t at all mind leaving the mountaintop alone for the ’98 Yankees.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, May 21, 2010