Why the Rays continually have one of baseball's best pitching staffs

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·MLB columnist
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ANAHEIM, Calif. – The middle of last summer, the gossip did finally come true and David Price was traded away.

Alex Cobb turned to Chris Archer and said, not with hubris but with gravity, "You know this is ours now, right?"

Eight months after, Cobb would have Tommy John surgery.

Chris Archer is 5-4 with a 2.12 ERA this season. (AP)
Chris Archer is 5-4 with a 2.12 ERA this season. (AP)

One by one, they've gone – James Shields to Kansas City, Price to Detroit, Matt Moore to surgery and yearlong recovery, Cobb with him, leaving the Tampa Bay Rays, depending on how you like your numbers, with the best pitching staff in American League.

"What?" Archer said Monday afternoon, June 1, two months in, four months remaining and all those innings to be pitched and manipulated and celebrated and endured. "That right?"

If it's not, it's close, and it's the product of the pitching culture in Tampa, of the pitching lineage, of clever enough trades and proper upbringing, of pitching coach Jim Hickey and bullpen coach Stan Boroski, of what Hickey called, "The expectation we have for it here."

Manager Kevin Cash replaced Joe Maddon, had a look around and decided with a laugh, "First thing is, don't get in the way."

Under new management, the Rays have pushed forward, again with a pitching staff that lifts the heavy stuff and an offense that will strain to be just average. The new variable is the AL East, which is soft and excuses one functional deficiency if not always two, which is why a .500 team that doesn't hit can loiter at or near the top of the division. After all the years otherwise, the Rays perhaps had a more forgiving East coming.

They lead now with Archer, acquired nearly five years ago from the Chicago Cubs in the Matt Garza trade, and Jake Odorizzi, part of the trade that sent Shields and Wade Davis to Kansas City. They follow Archer and Odorizzi for now with right-handers Nate Karns (from the Washington Nationals), Alex Colome and Erasmo Ramirez (from the Seattle Mariners). They wait on Drew Smyly, who came to them in the Price deal and suffered a torn labrum, and Moore, who could return in a month. They close with Brad Boxberger, who came in a trade with the San Diego Padres before last season.

"When you get drafted by the Rays or traded to the Rays, you know what the standard is," Archer said.

Jake Odorizzi is 4-5 with a 2.61 ERA this season. (Getty Images)
Jake Odorizzi is 4-5 with a 2.61 ERA this season. (Getty Images)

Shields set that. Price set that. There were others, too, and the next guy passes along the notion that a quality start isn't six innings and three runs, but means going deeper and giving up fewer. When the bus arrived from the hotel mid-afternoon and Price was in the clubhouse playing video games, it was because Price had cabbed over three hours before and gotten in a run, a lift and a bullpen. Before him, when Shields gathered his fellow starters for dinners on the road, it was less about the food than it was the cause.

Now Archer, at 26 and in his second full season, is out front. In 11 starts his ERA is 2.12. His WHIP is under 1. He's struck out 82 in 68 innings. He'd thrown fewer than 30 big-league innings when Shields was traded, enough to know things would change, only to fall in with Price, who became a big-brother influence and mentor. It served him well then. It serves him better now.

"He learned from Shields and he carried it into Cobb and Moore, and Cobb and Moore carried it right to me," Archer said. "Now here we are."

Karns and Colome are rookies, a designation that has come with some good and some wobbly. Colome allowed five runs in six innings to the Los Angeles Angels on Monday night, and the Rays gave up as many as seven runs for only the fourth time since mid-April. Ramirez, 25, has been inconsistent, as he was in Seattle, but threw seven shutout innings Saturday in Baltimore. Odorizzi, like Archer, has been one of the better pitchers in the league over two months. And still as a group they chase the standard, they hold to Hickey's philosophy of location over velocity, and they make it about more than themselves.

When Shields had to leave, Archer wondered how they'd replace all those innings. When Price had to go, he wondered who among them would evolve into that kind of teammate, that kind of man. So he chases that, too.

"The biggest thing for us, they were themselves," Archer said. "They didn't act like who they were supposed to be."

He loved having Price watch his bullpens between starts, then talking with him afterward about them. Sure enough, he said, he'd be three innings into his next start and Price would sit next to him on the bench and say, "Remember what we were talking about? Do that."

On Monday afternoon Archer looked up at the clock. He apologized, but he had to go. See, Erasmo Ramirez was to throw his bullpen session in a few minutes. He wanted to go watch that. He wanted to continue what's been going on around here for a while.

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