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The Little Engine That Could

The differences between the Tampa Bay Rays’ 2010 and 2011 ballclubs are distinct. Carl Crawford is gone. As are Carlos Pena, Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, Rafael Soriano and the rest of the 2010 Rays’ bullpen. Yet, after finishing in first place in the American League East in two of the past three seasons, the Rays are right back on top of the division yet again.

This was supposed to be a rebuilding year in Tampa Bay. It certainly started out that way. Payroll was cut in Tampa Bay from $71.9 million to $39.1 million. Evan Longoria was hurt in just his 7th at-bat of the season and missed the next 26 games. Manny Ramirez, signed in the offseason, quit after just 5 games and an embarrassing failed drug test. Four days later, the Rays fell 6-1 to the White Sox for their 8th loss in the season’s first nine games. At that point in the season, the Rays had scored 11 runs in their eight losses, and put nine runs on the board in their only win.

Sam Fuld

Sam Fuld

The next night the Rays traveled to Fenway Park to face the Boston Red Sox. Coming into the game, the Rays had averaged 2.2 runs, 5.2 hits and 2.2 extra-base hits per game. By the second inning, the Rays scored 6 runs and had 6 hits, 3 of them for extra bases. In the lineup that night was a little-known 29-year old outfielder named Sam Fuld. Prior to the game, Fuld had 11 career extra-base hits in 180 plate appearances. The New Hampshire native would finish with two doubles, a triple and a home run to lead the Rays to a 16-5 victory. Just like that, the Rays’ fortunes changed. The victory would spark a five-game winning streak and the Rays would win 13 of their next 15 games.

Matt Joyce

Matt Joyce

Tampa Bay now sits at 25-18, 23-10 since that April 11th victory. Longoria has now returned to the lineup and is still rounding into form. It has been unlikely heroes that have kept the Rays offense going while they wait for Longoria to heat up. In the 34 games since Tampa Bay fell to 1-8, Matt Joyce, Casey Kotchman and Ben Zobrist have been white-hot. Joyce is hitting .417 with 7 home runs, 21 RBIs, a .475 OBP and a .709 slugging percentage during that span. Zobrist, who leads the team with 28 RBIs, has picked 26 of them in that stretch with a .320/.410/.623 batting line and 7 home runs. While he only has 1 home run, Kotchman is posting a .348/.412/.424 line. Those three have helped the Rays average 4.9 runs, 9.1 hits and 3.5 extra-base hits in those 34 games.

Tampa Bay’s pitching staff has also helped lead this resurgence. In the American League, the Rays’ pitching staff ranks first in complete games (3), second in hits (339), third in runs (160), earned runs (149) and ERA (3.47), fourth in walks (132) and fifth in home runs  (34). James Shields has rebounded from a tough 2010 to lead the Rays starters with a 2.26 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 60 strikeouts and 67.2 innings pitched. Shields owns a 4-2 record. Former No.1 overall pick David Price continues to blossom, going 5-3 with a 3.59 ERA in 9 starts (62.2 innings). Shields and Price have pounded the strike zone consistently, posting 4.29 and 5.20 strikeout-to-walk ratios, respectively. Jeremy Hellickson has more than replaced Matt Garza in the rotation, going 5-2 with a 3.18 ERA in 8 starts (51 innings). Wade Davis has filled out what could be the best quad in any AL rotation, going 4-3 with a 3.47 ERA in 8 starts (49.1 innings).  The best part may only be yet to come with this group; Price and Davis are 25 years old while Hellickson is just 24.

Joe Maddon

Joe Maddon

The Rays’ bullpen, completely revamped from 2010, has been a surprising plus for this team. Manager Joe Maddon continues to do a terrific job of not over-exposing any weaknesses in the bullpen and mixing-and-matching who is pitching in the late innings. Kyle Farnsworth has racked up 9 saves in 10 chances. He owns a WHIP of just 0.91, an ERA of 1.76 and a 9.00 K/BB ratio. Joel Peralta, Juan Cruz, Adam Russell and Cesar Ramos have done a fine job setting up for Farnsworth. Peralta has a 0.90 WHIP and a 2.82 ERA. Cruz, Russell and Ramos are posting ERAs of 2.70, 3.60 and 4.05, respectively. The bullpen should only continue to get stronger, as Tampa Bay is activating left-hander JP Howell before tonight’s game.

Once forgotten as a contender in the AL East, the Rays have proven why teams should not overreact to slow starts behind the strong leadership of Joe Maddon. They have gotten great contributions offensively from Matt Joyce, Ben Zobrist and Casey Kotchman as they await for Evan Longoria to heat up. Maddon has done a tremendous job of using his brand-new bullpen to its strength while continuing to ride his young and talented pitching staff back to first place in the division. Even in a rebuilding year, it looks like the Rays will be contending for a chance to go deep into the playoffs.

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