Thursday, September 25, 2008

One Game Away

As you can see I haven’t written much this month. Mainly because I didn’t want to jinx the Rays, but also because I’m quite lazy. Throw in some traveling, some tough days at the office and you end up going two months without posting to your own site. Sorry about that faithful readers. As the cold weather approaches expect more postings.

So with that out of the way lets get to the Rays. To steal a phrase from post game guru Rich Herrera it has indeed been a magical summer. As the months wore on the experts kept anticipating a fall. Sure they were good in May, but wait till the summer starts and they wilt in June. They made it through June, you say? Well surely they’ll fade by the All-Star Break. Seven game losing streak at the break - see I told you they couldn’t hold up - they’ll be done in August. Still in first? Well as we all know September is the months that dashes the hopes and dream of the pretenders.

Does that sound familiar? It certainly does to me. Even hulking Red Sox slugger David Ortiz had to recant his words. In July he told the media, “I’m not saying that they will drop, but if you go by the numbers, that’s normally what happens in baseball. It’s always the guys with more experience and the guys used to being in the same spot at the end of the year that take over” In September he had to admit that they were for real.

Now, Mr. Papi, the number that is most important is one. As in the Rays magic number to clinch the division. Proving people wrong has gotten old for this team. When Scott Kazmir uttered his infamous “What’s possible? Play in October, that’s possible” on February 16th fans of the Rays were treated to the following responses from the commenters on Deadspin:

The only way the rays are gonna play in October is if Selig decides to move the season back a few months to have a few more steroid hearings (DemecoShallInerittheEarth)

There's a better chance for the Kashmir dispute to be settled by October than for Kazmir to be right. (DumpDolan)

The negativity on the various other commenter boards is too inane to repeat here. Throughout the season, even on the local hometown paper’s website supposed fans, whined and moaned about the team. David Price wasn’t called up fast enough, they didn’t make any deals, BJ Upton never smiles so they should trade him, etc, etc.

Even though they kept winning the fans kept complaining online and on the radio? Why wasn’t anyone enjoying this - sure the 15-20,000 fans had fun at the fame, but as soon as it was over the whining continued. Let Kazmir pitch more, take Troy Percival behind the shed and shoot him, for God’s sake why won’t Maddon call a bunt!

On the other side of the spectrum was the team itself. They elevated fun to a new level for a ball club A stark contract to the business-like Yankees dynasty of the late 90’s. After all it’s hard to picture Paul O’Neil bouncing around in the dugout with a Mohawk after another late inning win. They seemed to be a throwback to the old clubs that grandfathers like to talk about, the Gashouse Gang, The A’s of the 70’s and the Bronx Zoo Yankees.

Watching the team throughout the season has led me to realize a few things.

1. Pitching and defense wins games. It’s a cliché, but a valid one. A strengthened bullpen with Dan Wheeler and the resurgent Grant Balfour as well as adding Matt Garza to the rotation allowed the team to vault past the other mediocre teams in the division. The defensive play, led up the middle by Jason Bartlett, Aki! And BJ Upton prevented them from giving extra outs to the Red Sox and Yankees helping to prevent big innings.

Building a team through pitching and defense is also cheaper than building a team around offense. Chicks might dig the long ball, but cost conscious owners don’t dig signing those checks. See the failed Hit Show experiment as to why offense isn’t always the way to go.

2. Chemistry does matter. As I touched on briefly this earlier, but the team does really enjoy playing together. Whether it’s the Mohawks, or boxing robes for Jon Gomes or the scraggily beards in support of Rocco this team is here for more than a paycheck. California Joe is the perfect leader for this group of kids. He let’s them run amok just enough to find out what their limits are, but also knows when to put a firm foot down.

3. There is a definite ace on the team and his name isn’t Scott Kazmir. I like Kazmir, I think he has tremendous ability, but he hasn’t harnessed it yet. Until he can work out of the 5th inning he can’t be the leader of the staff. Matt Garza has the most electric stuff on the staff, but inconsistency is his cross to bear. He could throw a no hitter or not last through the first. Andy Sonnanstine led the teams with wins for most of the season and was invaluable in eating up innings through out the season, but he’s…well…he’s Andy Sonnanstine - Mike Boddicker version 2.0. Ed Jackson is much like Garza and Kazmir - a raw talent who hasn’t learned the art of pitching yet.

That leaves one person. Big Game James. Going into the playoffs he is the undisputed ace of the staff. The game that sealed the deal - game one of the double header against Baltimore. On a day when they needed a pitcher to give them some innings he went out and gave them seven strong. Thirty-two starts and 214 innings averages out to almost 7 innings a start. Compare that to 27 starts and 152 innings for Kazmir. That’s a full inning less that Shields. Going into the playoffs the Rays are going to need to keep the bullpen fresh. If Shields can give them 2-3 starts of 7 innings or more then it saves the bullpen for games when they’re needed (I.E. Kazmir’s starts).

In the next few days the Rays will clinch their first division title. They will celebrate, there will be swimming goggles and champagne. Then the critics will come out and poke little holes in the team and come up with reasons why they won’t advance. Let’s leave that for later. For now enjoy what has transgressed from April to September. From Kazmir’s seemingly ridicules playoff prediction in spring training to the proliferation of 9=8 t-shirts. From 0-14 in the minors to presumptive Rookie of the Year for Evan Longoria. From Class A to the show for David Price. It’s been a wild ride.