The events in Tampa Bay that in mid-May have lifted the Rays to six consecutive wins, to first place in the American League East, to the best record in all of the AL did not come accidentally.
Hours after his ballclub had beaten the New York Yankees over consecutive nights, the latter over 11 punishing innings, Andrew Friedman, the general manager, answered his office telephone, laughed and blurted, “Get off the bandwagon!”
He then explained, “It’s a blueprint we had: Eleven years being the worst professional sports franchise and then sneak up on ‘em. It worked.”
As I told Friedman, after too many conversations asking him why his team wasn’t very good and if it ever could be good, I had to call on the Wednesday morning his Rays were in first place. An hour later, manager Joe Maddon returned a message left on his cell phone from Tuesday afternoon, hours before the Rays separated themselves from the rest of the division by a half-game.
Let the record show, I told him, I left the message before you were in first.
“Duly noted,” he said, laughing.
So, I asked, is this an OK team playing over its head for six weeks or a good team that has arrived?
“I’ll tell you, we’re on the verge of arriving,” Maddon said. “I don’t want to put it out there too soon. But, we’re playing the game right.”
The pitching, he said. The defense, he said. In fact, he said, “Defense, defense, defense and pitching.”
Jason Bartlett and Aki Iwamura up the middle have changed the way the Rays compete. Evan Longoria, the rookie with the big new contract, is terrific at third, as is Carlos Pena at first. Catcher Dioner Navarro has improved. And the pitching staff, he said, can pitch to the defense, and has.
“The way we’ve been doing it,” Maddon said, “I think stands up. It feels good. It feels as it should. Guys come ready to play. We’re getting to that point (where) everybody is unselfish, picking each other up, different guy driving the bus every night.”
In their first decade, the Devil Rays won as many as 70 games once, in 2004, the only season they finished out of last place. Geographically lashed to a division whose elite franchises – the Yankees and Boston Red Sox – routinely spend as much for a couple run producers and a staff ace as lesser-market teams do for an entire roster, the Devil Rays reworked their pitching staff, tended to the defense behind it, dropped the “Devil” and now find themselves contending deeper into a season than they ever have.
With (granted) 4½ months still out there, the Rays are fourth in the AL in ERA, despite getting only two starts from their ace, lefty Scott Kazmir. Their major winter acquisition – righty Matt Garza – missed 2½ weeks in April due to nerve irritation. The Rays have won three of his four starts since, including Monday night when he outpitched Andy Pettitte. Edwin Jackson, the under-achieving right-hander dumped by the Los Angeles Dodgers two years ago for Danys Baez and Lance Carter, has five quality starts in eight and hasn’t allowed a run in 15 innings. And the bullpen, which gets last year’s closer – Al Reyes – off the disabled list today, has the second-best ERA in the league, to Oakland’s.
The Rays have 21 quality starts, same as the Red Sox and Angels, one more than the A’s, two more than the Yankees, 11 more than the Detroit Tigers.
Still, a nice early-season story appeared to have run its course two weeks ago, when the Rays showed up in Boston tied for first place and were swept (by a combined score of 26-10) by the decorated and formidable Red Sox. They’ve come back to win seven of eight games against the Toronto Blue Jays, Los Angeles Angels and Yankees, and will pitch James Shields and Kazmir against the Yankees on Wednesday night and Thursday afternoon. Shields is 3-0 with a 1.16 ERA at The Trop, where in his last two starts he’s shut out the Red Sox and Angels.
“The biggest thing that’s been accomplished over the first six weeks is the increased confidence of all our players,” Friedman said. “We saw it start in spring training and it was genuine. It’s almost like a why-not-us mentality.
“We all knew that at some point this team would come together. Now, whether that’s in May, September, next summer, we don’t know. That’s the exciting part about being a young team.”
While it might seem unrealistic for the Rays to sustain such roster-wide growth for another 123 games, they have ascended to seven games over .500 for the first time in franchise history despite injuries to DH Cliff Floyd, Navarro, outfielder Rocco Baldelli and Kazmir, Garza and Reyes. Meantime, B.J. Upton is only now becoming comfortable in center field, Longoria has just 99 big-league at-bats, and Pena, Carl Crawford and Jonny Gomes haven’t yet found their summer strokes.
“Nobody en fuego,” Maddon said, arriving at the dry cleaners on his way to the ballpark.
So the Rays climb to first place, the Yankees fall to fourth, and Hank Steinbrenner tells the New York Post it’s time for the Yankees to start earning their money and conducting themselves more like the … Rays?
“The bottom line,” Steinbrenner told the Post, “is that the team is not playing the way it is capable of playing. These players are being paid a lot of money and they had better decide for themselves to earn that money.”
It always seemed more graceful coming from George.
“[The Yankees] have got to start playing the way the Rays are playing,” he added.
Friedman wouldn’t touch that. The Rays haven’t yet caught on in Tampa, where attendance remains gravely low, even if television ratings and Internet traffic, according to Friedman, have improved. The Rays drew only 16,558 for Tuesday night's game.
“Obviously I’m biased,” he said, “but whether you thought this team was going to win 75 games or win 95 games, it’s a really exciting team to watch.”
For Hank, only from afar.
“I’m happy for them,” he told the Post, “but I wish they were in the National League.”