2011 Tampa Bay Rays Keep Finding Ways to Surprise

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The Tampa Bay Rays weren’t supposed to be here. They weren’t supposed to contend for a playoff spot. They weren’t supposed to win the Wild Card spot and certainly weren’t supposed to take Game 1 of the ALDS (9-0) against the Texas Rangers, on the road, with rookie starter Matt Moore taking the hill. To put it bluntly, the Rays are doing more than anyone expected, and what no else one believed they could.

It started in the offseason. With Carl Crawford headed to free agency, everyone knew there was nothing the Rays could do in order to keep him. They simply didn’t have the money. The Rays have the second-lowest payroll in all of baseball at just over $41 million, just $5 million above the eternally rebuilding Kansas City Royals. The Rays simply can’t hold onto their stars once they are able to command big-money contracts, the economics of doing so for the franchise in Tampa just doesn’t work.

What the Rays do accomplish better than just about everyone is finding and developing talent, especially pitchers. That’s why it was strange to see Tampa Bay go the free agent route with the acquisitions of Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. Damon has worked out fairly well, but we all know how the results of the Manny saga. The Rays were looking for bargains, and you can’t fault them given the lost players.

Carl Crawford wasn’t the only significant departure for this team. Carlos Pena headed off to Chicago to play for the Cubs, and their bullpen was gutted. Joaquin Benoit (Tigers), Rafael Soriano (Yankees), Grant Balfour (Athletics), Dan Wheeler (Red Sox) and Lance Cormier (Dodgers) all found new homes. Each one was a cog in the Rays bullpen that allowed the least amount of runs for any AL team (180) in 2010. In fact, Benoit and Soriano both had ERAs under 2.00, and not one of the above pitchers had an ERA over 3.92 (Cormier).

But the Rays knew what they were doing. Instead of overpaying, they let each one walk. They then watched as Benoit, Soriano and Cormier all doubled their ERA or worse. Wheeler added a run to his ERA and only Balfour pitched as effectively. The replacements did everything needed. Brandon Gomes, Adam Russell and Cesar Ramos – acquired from trading Jason Bartlett to San Diego – and free agent Joel Peralta all posted solid ERAs. Guess what they were? All 3.92 or lower! The best and most impactful move was Tampa Bay’s signing of Kyle Farnsworth. A multi-team castoff, Farnsworth came into a clouded closer situation and became on the best in the league. Farnsworth had a career year posting a 2.18 ERA and 0.99 WHIP, numbers only seen in his 26 games with Atlanta in 2005.

We still haven’t even talked about their trade of Matt Garza to the Cubs. Most of the players in return will have impacts in later years, if at all, but if you remember April and the Rays, you should remember the “Month of Sam Fuld.” At least there was instant excitement from one of the players. The trade was possible because the Rays know their pitching.

Getting back to what the Rays do, and do well, is what led this team to an improbable and amazing 2011 season finish. A rotation of David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson (rookie), Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis finished just .01 behind the Angels in the AL for ERA. They actually led the AL in Batting Average Against at .234, which is a testament to not only their pitching, but also the strong defense the organization built around the staff. Oh, and that pitching staff, not one is older than 29 (Shields). Price and Davis are just 26, and the rookie, Hellickson, is only 24. Then there is Friday night’s star, Matt Moore. The top overall prospect in the minors, for any team, proved why he was regarded so highly. At just 22 years old – on this past June 18 – Moore dominated the Rangers in Arlington Friday night in game one of the ALDS by throwing seven shutout innings while striking out six. This was against a team that finished first in the AL in average, third in runs, second in home runs and second in total bases! Oh, and the Rangers CRUSH lefties. In all of baseball, Texas was first in average, second in slugging and third in runs scored against lefties. Yet, Moore blew them all away. This just wasn’t and isn’t supposed to happen.

In Las Vegas the sportsbook’s gave the Rays mediocre odds to win the World Series in the preseason, ranking them as the 12th best team at a 22-1 bet, while the Red Sox (4.5-1) were second only to the Phillies (3-1). Think about what the Rays accomplished here. They let their best all-around, All-Star, cornerstone player walk in free agency, traded away one of their best pitchers, revamped their bullpen, and still found find their way into the playoffs in a division with the juggernauts Boston and New York.

It’s only fitting that the Rays did the improbable. Starting September at 8.5 games behind in the Wild Card – to the Yankees and NOT the Red Sox – the Rays came all the way back to stun us all. Actually, that might pale in comparison to Wednesday night. The game against the Yankees was shocking enough. Red Sox fans were in celebration mode by the time Tampa Bay found themselves down 7-0 in the eighth inning. The playoffs were set and heads hung low in Tampa. Half the crowd was gone. Then, capping off the improbable season was the ultimate comeback: six runs scored in the eighth; Dan Johnson, who was hitting .108 (no that’s not a typo), hit a game-tying home run with two strikes and two outs in the bottom of the ninth; the finale, a walk-off home run from Evan Longoria in bottom of the 12th.

If you took the entire season, especially the events that transpired Wednesday night, and put them together in a movie script, even Hollywood would have laughed at you. No matter how you look at it, the Rays were underdogs and counted out from February through seven innings on baseball’s final, regular season day. It’s just great for baseball and its fans that the Rays never stopped believing. If there is one thing we’ve learned from the Rays, it is that you never give up, never lose hope and never let someone else tell you what your results should be.

In addition to covering the NFL, MLB, NBA, and College Football for RotoExperts, Jake Ciely (a.k.a "All In Kid") is also a poker fiend and a Maharishi in the world of sports wagering. Jake was a finalist for the FSWA's 2010 Newcomer of the Year award. You may email Jake @ [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @JakeAllinCiely