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Tampa Bay Rays

The Greatest Night In Baseball History

The very first Major League Baseball game was played on May 4, 1871 between the Cleveland Forest Cities and the Fort Wayne Kekiongas. A lot has changed in the national pastime in the 140 years, four months and 24 days since. Baseball has seen a number of odd and amazing things happen in the 51,281 days pass since then, but last night we may have witnessed the greatest night in baseball history.

The scene set at the beginning of the night was perfect. Two teams in each league tied for the last elusive playoff spot. Each league had one team (the Red Sox in the American League and the Braves in the National League) trying to stave off possibly the greatest collapses in baseball history while two others (the Rays in the AL and the Cardinals in the NL) looked to put the finishing touches on improbable comebacks.

The stories of how each team got here, into a tie on the final day of the season, are all very unique. On September 2, the Red Sox held a nine-game lead over Tampa Bay in the AL Wild Card race. No team in major league history had ever blown a nine-game lead in September. In the 25 games since September 2, the Red Sox gave up six runs or more in a game 18 times as Boston’s pitching staff surrendered an astounding 6.4 runs per game. Their starting pitchers compiled a 7.91 ERA over the last 19 games. The Red Sox would go 7-18 since September 2, falling into a tie for the AL Wild Card with Tampa Bay.

The Rays, despite vaulting nine games in the standings to catch Boston, had been on a rollercoaster ride in September. Tampa Bay was just 10-9 against every other team in baseball during the month. However, the Rays were able to make up ground so quickly because they dominated the Red Sox, winning six of seven games against Boston. By the time each team would play its final series of the year on September 26, Tampa Bay had vaulted itself into a tie atop the AL Wild Card standings.

On the National League side, the Braves were faltering in similar fashion to the Red Sox. Atlanta held an 8.5 game lead over St. Louis on September 5. However, since then, the Braves went 7-15, with 11 different pitchers taking a loss. During that stretch, Atlanta averaged only 3.09 runs per game and allowed 4.36 runs per game. Over the course of the season, those numbers were 3.96 and 3.73, respectively.

As Atlanta cooled off, the Cardinals began to catch fire. St. Louis’ run actually began a little bit earlier than the Braves’ collapse though, which allowed them to gain slightly more ground. On August 25, the Cardinals were 10.5 games behind Atlanta in the NL Wild Card race. In the 31 games since then though, St. Louis went 22-9, including a three-game sweep of the Braves from September 9 through 11. During that stretch, the Cardinals averaged 4.84 runs per game while surrendering just 3.84 runs per contest. With their 13-6 victory Tuesday over the Astros, St. Louis was finally able to erase the deficit and move into a tie atop the NL Wild Card leaders.

The final night of the season proved to be the final stop on the magical carpet ride the Rays and Cardinals had taken throughout September. However, for most of the night, it looked as if both of those teams would either not get the job done or be forced into a one-game playoff to decide their playoff faith the next day.

The Cardinals erased any chance of doubt early on by taking a 5-0 lead in the top of the first inning. They would cruise to an 8-0 victory, the only game of the four teams tied for a Wild Card spot that lacked drama.

Meanwhile, after a Ryan Howard RBI-double in the top of the first for Philadelphia, the Braves responded by tying the game on a Chipper Jones sacrifice fly in the bottom half of the frame. In the bottom of the third, Dan Uggla gave Atlanta their first lead of the game with a two-run home run to left to make it 3-1. However, the Phillies began to inch closer as the late innings fell upon Turner Field. A Jack Wilson error in the top of the seventh allowed Raul Ibanez to score to make it 3-2.

The score would stay that way as Braves manager Freddi Gonzalez summoned Craig Kimbrel, who saved a rookie-record 46 games this year, into the game to close things out in the ninth. Kimbrel immediately allowed a single to Placido Polanco, who was pinch-run for by Pete Orr. After striking out Carlos Ruiz for the first out, Kimbrel committed the worst sin that a pitcher can make; giving out free passes to first base for batters. He walked pinch-hitter Ben Francisco and followed that up with the same result to Jimmy Rollins to load the bases with one out. The free passes allowed Chase Utley to hit a sacrific fly to left and just like that, Kimbrel blew his eighth save of the season as the Phillies tied the game at three.

The game would remain scoreless until the 13th, with Atlanta missing a golden opportunity to win with runners on the corners and two outs in the 12th. Scott Linebrink entered the game out of the Braves bullpen for the top half of the inning and made the same egregious mistakes as Kimbrel. After striking out Dominic Brown, Linebrink walked Brian Schneider. Rollins flied to center for the second out but then an Utley single pushed Schneider to third. With runners on the corners and two outs, the same situation the Braves failed to score with in the bottom of the 12th, Hunter Pence hit a weak line drive that found a hole in the right side of the infield to give the Phillies a 4-3 lead.

Atlanta had one final opportunity to extend their season in the bottom frame of the 13th. However, with a runner on first and one out, Freddie Freeman grounded into a double play as the Braves’ season suddenly and shockingly ended. With five games to play, Atlanta had owned a three-game lead over St. Louis. In those five games, though, the Braves scored just seven runs, going 0-5. However, their bullpen implosion would not be the only one by a team on this night to put the finishing touches on a sinking season.

Over on the American League side, things could not have started off any better for the Red Sox. For just the third time in 15 games, the Red Sox would able to put a crooked number on the scoreboard before the opposing team, using a Dustin Pedroia single to take a 1-0 lead in the third. However, Boston coughed the lead right up on a two-run J.J. Hardy homer in the bottom half of the inning. The Red Sox continued to claw back though, scoring one in the fourth on a balk by Orioles pitcher Alfredo Simon and then using a Pedroia home run to take a 3-2 lead in the fifth.

As Boston was taking the lead and the reigns in the Wild Card race, Tampa Bay looked like their season would end because of their struggles against every other team besides the Red Sox. By the end of the fifth inning, the Yankees had a 7-0 lead and the Rays’ postseason hopes looked pretty much dead.

However, just like that though, a funny thing happened. It was almost as if the baseball gods intervened to suddenly change the fortunes of the games. As the Orioles and Red Sox stopped play for a rain delay, Tampa Bay suddenly began a miraculous comeback. With Boston watching from the locker room, the Rays got their first three men on base against Boone Logan in the bottom of the eighth. New York manager Joe Girardi decided to bring in Luis Ayala and Tampa Bay capitalized immediately. Sam Fuld walked score Johnny Damon to make it 7-1. Ayala hit Sean Rodriguez with a pitch to force in another run to make it 7-2 before striking out Desmond Jennings for the first out of the innings. B.J. Upton then hit a sacrifice fly to make it 7-3 with two outs and the Rays’ hottest hitter, Evan Longoria, coming to the plate. Suddenly, with two men on, a glimmer of hope appeared at the end of the tunnel for Tampa Bay. Longoria crushed a pitch over the fence in left field, and just like that the Rays were within one at 7-6. John Jaso singled before Ayala retired Damon to end the inning and stop the bleeding.

Tampa Bay was afforded one more shot in the bottom of the ninth inning to put their playoff destiny in their own hands. The Yankees’ new pitcher, Cory Wade, retired the first two hitters of the plate though, and suddenly the Rays were down to their final out. With light-hitting Sam Fuld due up next, Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon made the curious decision of pinch-hitting Dan Johnson. Among non-pitchers with at least 50 plate appearances this year, Johnson (.119) had the lowest batting average this season of any hitter in baseball. However, be it the baseball gods or Maddon’s knowledge that since 2008, Johnson was 17-for-52 (.327) with eight home runs and 14 RBIs in 22 games against the Red Sox and Yankees and just . 20 for 168 (.119 with three homers and 17 RBIs in 56 games against the rest baseball, Johnson came through. Down to his final strike, Johnson crushed a ball over the fence in right field to miraculously tie the game and send it to extra innings.

Soon afterwards, the Red Sox and Orioles resumed play at Camden Yards. The Boston bullpen was able to keep Baltimore off the scoreboard in the seventh and the eighth and hand the ball to closer Jonathan Papelbon for the ninth inning with a 3-2 lead. Coming into this game, the Red Sox were 77-0 this season when leading after eight innings. Papelbon struck out the first two batters of the inning and the Red Sox were one out away from controlling their own destiny once again in the postseason hunt. However, fate kicked in against Boston. Chris Davis hit a double and then Nolan Reimold stepped to the plate. Papelbon pumped two fastballs by the bat of Reimold and Boston was just one strike away. However, Reimold smashed a ground-rule double into right to tie it at three. Robert Andino then digged into the box. It would be the last batter of the Red Sox’s miserable and depressing fall from grace. Andino lined a ball hard into left field. Charging hard was Carl Crawford, who slid feet first, but the ball clanked off his glove, scoring Reimold and sending Boston back into the clubhouse with a loss after leading in the eighth inning for the first time all season.

At this time, the Yankees and Rays had moved into the bottom of the 13th inning. Pitching for New York was Scott Proctor, who had throw 2.1 innings of scoreless baseball as Longoria stepped back into the box. With the eyes of a tormented Red Sox Nation now upon him, Longoria worked the count to 2-2. He then fouled off a pitch before lining a rocket down the left field line. The ball stayed fair and flew just over the fence as the Rays celebrated being the first team in baseball history to overcome a nine-game deficit to make the postseason. It was just the third time in Yankees history, and first since 1953, that New York blew a seven-run lead in the 8th inning or later. Like what happened to the Braves, it took one final bullpen collapse to be the final straw of the Red Sox’s season, finishing off the most epic collapse of all-time.

Boston did not win consecutive games since beating Oakland in a doubleheader on August 27.  The Red Sox were 1-2 against Texas, 2-5 against Toronto, 1-6 against Tampa Bay, 2-5 against Baltimore and 1-4 against the Yankees in September, finishing 7-20 overall in the month. The 20 losses in September were the most by a Red Sox team in the month since 1952. The team with baseball’s third-highest payroll will be watching the playoffs from home for the second season in a row while the Rays, who own the major’s second-smallest payroll, will be going to the postseason for the third time in four years.

The night started with the potential to be magical, but it proved to be even better than that. The Rays were one strike away from losing. The Red Sox were one strike away from winning. But in each case, the opposite happened. The timing of the games and the simple brilliance of ninth-inning rallies, two teams’ bullpen collapses and a walk-off home run proved to be as dramatic as baseball can get. With so much on the line, seeing all of this was unbelievable. When the dust settled, the only word that could even come close to describing the enchantment of the cascade of events crashing down last night is this one: Amazing.

There have been 51,282 nights in baseball history. None of them were better and filled with more collective drama and magic than what we witnessed last night.

Monday Night Madness Podcast No. 2

Luke Jackson and I begin the show by discussing the Major League Baseball pennant races before moving to Week Two of the NFL season. We close the show by discussing Maryland football and soccer.

You can also download the Monday Night Madness podcast on iTunes or download the show by clicking here!

You can also listen to our brand-new USA-themed introduction by clicking below!

Monday Night Madness Podcast No. 1

I do a weekly talk show with a friend of mine, Luke Jackson, on WMUC Sports every Monday from 7-9 p.m. This week, we interview Baltimore Sun Maryland Terrapins beat writer Jeff Barker. We then talked about Terps football, Week 1 in the NFL and the Major League Baseball pennant races.

To download and listen to our weekly podcast, click here.

To download and listen to our interview with Jeff Barker, click here.

Don’t forget you can also download our Monday Night Madness podcast on iTunes!

The Best Season You’re Not Noticing

The Tampa Bay Rays are 8.5 games behind the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. Having to replace the offseason losses of Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena in the lineup, the Rays have gone from third in the American League in runs last year to seventh this season. Their most recognizable star, third baseman Evan Longoria, is on pace for career-lows in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, doubles, home runs and runs batted in. Because Tampa Bay is so far behind the two best teams in the AL, their offensive decline and their star third baseman’s struggles, few have taken notice of the kind of season Ben Zobrist is having.

Ben Zobrist did not reach the big leagues until age 25 in 2006. He didn’t play in more than 62 games in a season until Rays manager Joe Maddon made him an everyday player at age 28 in 2009. Zobrist responded to his first everyday starting opportunity in the majors with a .297/.405/.543, 28-double, 27-homer, 91-RBI year, finishing eighth in the AL Most Valuable Player voting. However, pitchers became more aware of Zobrist’s presence in the Rays’ lineup last season, pitching much more carefully to him. As a result, Zobrist’s numbers dipped badly to .237/.346/.353 with 28 doubles, 10 homers and 75 RBIs. His poor 2010 season is another reason he has kept under the radar this season.

After whacking 28 doubles apiece in his first two full seasons, Zobrist leads the majors with 42 doubles this season. His .874 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) ranks him 10th in the AL, better than Robinson Cano, Dustin Pedroia and Mark Teixeira. The Rays are ninth in the league in on-base percentage (.317), but the lack of baserunners has not prevented Zobrist from knocking in 73 runs. He is on pace to drive in 93 runs, which would be a career-high. Zobrist is also batting .287/.375/.499, has slammed 15 home runs and darted around the bases for six triples.

Look closer into his season, and Zobrist has only gotten better as it has gone along. For the first 55 games of the season (April 1- June 2), he hit .246/.325/.473 with 16 doubles, nine homers and 30 RBIs. In the 69 games since then, he is batting .319/.413/.519 with 26 doubles, four triples, six homers and 43 RBIs. Zobrist’s .932 OPS during that span would rank him seventh in the AL over a full season. Over the past month, he is hitting .360/.429/.604 with 13 doubles, one triple, four home runs and 24 RBIs. His 1.032 OPS during this span would be second in the AL behind Jose Bautista over a full season. He does not hit bash home runs, Zobrist’s value is fully displayed in OPS because he gets on-base at a high rate and gets many extra-base hits.

The Tampa Bay Rays are looking at an uphill battle over the last month of the season to catch up to the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL East. After losing Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena this offseason, their offense has declined while their most talented player, Evan Longoria, is posting career-lows in every major offensive category. Those factors, along with his supbar 2010 season, are reasons why few seem to notice how great of a year Ben Zobrist is having. Tampa Bay’s second baseman/right fielder leads the majors in doubles and is 10th in the AL in OPS. His penchant for getting on-base and smashing extra-base hits has only increased as the season has gone along. Ben Zobrist is having the best season that few are realizing.

Life As A Ray

Normally when a team is 6.5 games out of a playoff spot in July, they are looking to add pieces to make a run at the postseason in October. Life is not so simple for the Tampa Bay Rays, who are 53-47 on the season and sit behind the New York Yankees in the American League Wild Card race. Unlike the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, both of whom Tampa Bay competes with in the AL East annually, the Rays cannot add payroll almost at will. If they played in the AL Central, the Rays would be only a half-game behind the Detroit Tigers for first place. Instead, because of simple geography, the team with baseball’s second-smallest payroll at $41 million has to constantly compete with both baseball’s highest and third-largest payroll, New York at $201 million and Boston at $161 million. Tampa Bay has to always be thinking of the future while figuring out a way to do battle the Yankees and the Red Sox in the present.

Because of the team’s limited financial flexibility and the fact that they simply won’t be able to go out and spend on talent in the future like the Yankees and the Red Sox, the Rays are looking to sell, not buy, this trade deadline. Names that have frequently come up in trade rumors are center fielder B.J. Upton and starting pitcher James Shields. While trading Upton and Shields for two or three young and talented prospects apiece may lower the Rays’ chances of making the playoffs this season, when those four-to-six players mature and contribute to the big league club in the future, Tampa Bay’s postseason chances will be increased greatly. Such has become the life of the Rays under Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon.

Upton, once rated the second-best prospect in the minors by Baseball America, hit .300/.386/.508 with 25 doubles, 24 home runs, 82 runs batted in and 22 stolen bases in his first full major league season at age 22 in 2007. In the three seasons since then, Upton batted .250/.340/.399 while averaging 36 doubles, 13 homers, 61 RBIs and 43 stolen bases per year. He has continued his decline this season, hitting .229/.310/.395 with 13 doubles, 15 home runs, 52 RBIs and 23 steals. However, even with his decline, Upton is due for a raise this offseason, as he is eligible for arbitration. Similar to the reason why they traded Matt Garza this offseason, Tampa Bay is wary of Upton’s potential expenses and is looking to trade the athletic and slick-fielding center fielder this July, even though he cannot become a free agent until after next season.

It is more puzzling why the Rays would consider dealing James Shields, who is enjoying the best season of his career. The 29-year old has made 21 starts this season with a league-leading seven complete games and three shutouts. He has a record of 9-8 with a 2.53 ERA and 1.011 WHIP in 156.1 innings pitched. He is averaging just over 7.1 innings per start while striking out 8.7 batters per nine innings, allowing only 6.8 hits in the same span. Shields is also under Tampa Bay’s control through the 2014 season with team options for the next three seasons of $7 million, $9 million and $12 million, respectively.

However, Tampa Bay may be looking to sell Shields while his value is at its peak, similar to when they traded Scott Kazmir to the Angels in 2009. In Tampa Bay from 2007 through 2010, Shields averaged a record of 12-11 with a 4.17 ERA, 1.263 WHIP, 9.4 H/9, 7.4 K/9 and one complete game per season. With opponents’ batting average on balls in play at .259 this season, well below the league average of .300, it indicates that Shields has been considerably lucky. While trading Shields, a potential AL Cy Young Award candidate this year, may hurt the Rays’ postseason quest now, getting back two or three big-time prospects for him while his value is extremely high will help the team reload for the future.

Most teams that are in the middle of the playoff race are looking to add pieces to their club before the trade deadline every July. However, that is not the case with the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays know that in order to continue to stay competitive in the AL East with the Yankees and Red Sox year in and year out, they must always keep an eye out towards the future. While trading players like B.J. Upton and James Shields, among others, may hurt their postseason chances this season, the Rays know that the minor league talent and increased payroll flexibility they receive in return will only help them in the future. Life as a Ray may not be easy, but it’s what it takes to be successful.

Red Sox-Rays Extra-Inning Extravaganza Diary

It is one o’clock in the morning. The Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays have entered the 15th inning of a scoreless game at Tropicana Field. In my tired state, for some reason I decide to make a diary of my thoughts until the end of the game. Here it is:

1:14 a.m.- Dustin Pedroia pummels a pitch from Rays pitcher Brandon Gomes. Rays centerfield B.J. Upton runs it down. How many hard-hit balls that look like they will land 10 rows into the bleachers will be caught tonight?

1:16 a.m.- Kevin Youkilis gets hit for the 4,982nd time this season. Actually, ESPN play-by-play guy Dan Schulman informs me it is the 12th time this season Youkilis has been hit. I was just a little off in my estimation.

1:17 a.m.- Drew Sutton steps up the plate. It really seemed like a good idea to have Sutton pinch-run for David Ortiz with the bases loaded and no one out in the top of the 11th. Not so much right now.

1:18 a.m.- Sutton pops up with runners on first and second with one out. If only Big Papi was up…

1:20 a.m.- ESPN flashes to the Red Sox dugout with Big Papi leading a clan of players wearing rally caps. I have to say I love the look. Maybe this will be the Red Sox’s new thing, like the bullpen band, which started in 2007.

1:21 a.m.- Darnell McDonald pops up to end the top of the 15th. Still 0-0. I go grab a box of “Quattro Formaggio” Triscuits. Always a great snack.

1:23 a.m.- Alfredo Aceves begins his third inning of work tonight for Boston. Have to say he’s been a great pickup this offseason by Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein. The versatile pitcher has started, filled the long-relief role and helped set-up for closer Jonathan Papelbon.

1:24 a.m.- The Red Sox have left 15 men on-base. Ugh.

1:27 a.m.- All this time staring at the Rays’ light blue alternate jersey has made me realize just how ugly it really is. Has to be one of the worst jerseys in sports.

1:28 a.m.- Aceves hits Evan Longoria and Casey Kotchman in consecutive at-bats. One out. B.J. Upton coming up. I am a little nervous.

1:29 a.m.- Schulman informs the audience that this is the longest game in Rays history. All 14 years of it.

1:31 a.m.- Aceves gets Upton to pop up and Justin Ruggiano to ground out to end the 15th inning. What a great job by Jason Varitek. The 39-year old catcher has caught all 15 innings tonight. Unbelievable.

1:34 a.m.- No errors in this game so far. Only two major league games ended with completely clean and errorless baseball today.

1:35 a.m.- The Rays bring in their final pitcher in the bullpen, Adam Russell. They have just one more player available on their bench, Elliot Johnson, who is a second baseman with a total of 19 at-bats this year. I’m really hoping we see him pitch. That would make this game even more enjoyable.

1:37 a.m.- Josh Reddick draws a leadoff walk. The Red Sox still haven’t had a hit since Dustin Pedroia’s double in the ninth. The Rays’ bullpen has walked 10(!) Red Sox hitters. The bats need to come through at some point.

1:38 a.m.- Varitek lays down a perfect bunt to put Reddick in scoring position. I’m not normally a big fan of the bunt, but in this situation, I like the call.

1:39 a.m.- Marco Scutaro walks up to the plate. I have noticed that he has switched bats from earlier in the game. He is now using a black bat instead of the basic, no-paint bat. Maybe this is the lucky bat that will deliver the elusive hit!

1:39 a.m.- The bat does have some luck in it! Scutaro hits a weak groundball up the middle, but Rays shortstop Reid Brignac botches it. Runners on the corners, one out! Jacoby Ellsbury coming up. Why did Scutaro wait until the 16th inning to use his lucky bat?

1:40 a.m- Ellsbury is 0-for-7 tonight. Wow, talk about a tough night. All he needs to do now is hit a flyball to make up for it…

1:41 a.m.- What does he do? Ellsbury hits a shallow flyball that is not deep enough to score Reddick from third. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? COME ON!

1:41 a.m.- Starting to think that this game might actually never end. Dustin Pedroia steps up to the plate.

1:42 a.m.- AND PEDROIA DELIVERS!!!! WHO ELSE? The Red Sox take a 1-0 lead! Why did I ever doubt him?

1:43 a.m.- Pedroia is one of my all-time favorite players. I absolutely love the guy. The smallest player on the field always seems to deliver in the game’s biggest moments. He has three of the Red Sox’s five hits tonight, going 3-for-7. The rest of the team is 2-for-45.

1:44 a.m.- Adrian Gonzalez swats a flyball to deep right field… Could it be? Not today, it falls just short. Make that 2-for-46. Nice leaping catch by Ben Zobrist to keep this game within reach for Tampa Bay. Jonathan Papelbon time!

1:45 a.m.- Commercial break. I run the Triscuits back to the cabinet in the kitchen. They were delicious.

1:46 a.m.- Surprised to see Papelbon’s ERA in the 4’s. The more I think about it, with the way Daniel Bard is pitching, the more I think this is Papelbon’s last year in Boston.

1:50 a.m.- Papelbon strike out Sean Rodriguez and gets Kelly Shoppach to ground out to Youkilis at third. The crowd screams, “YOOOOOOOUUUUUUUKKKKKK.” Gotta love the great home-field advantage for the Rays at Tropicana Field.

1:51 a.m.- One more out!

1:52 a.m.- Two strikes on Brignac! Put him away, Papelbon!

1:53 a.m.- Nine pitches for Papelbon. Nine strikes. He looks like a man on a mission to get out of Tampa Bay as soon as possible tonight.

1:54 a.m.- Brignac rips a pitch headed towards right field. Adrian Gonzalez makes a nice snag before throwing it over to Papelbon covering first base and the ballgame is over! Papelbon delivers his signature fist-pump. One of my favorite fist-pumps in sports. It’s the same exact one every time but it’s filled with so much emotion.

1:55 a.m.- It took five hours and 55 minutes, but what a game!

1:55 a.m.- It’s games like this that reinforce why this is the best sport on the planet. The two teams averaged one hit every 53 minutes. The Red Sox left 17 runners on base. The Rays used each of their eight relievers and had two coaches ejected. It was the third-longest scoreless game in Major League Baseball history.

2:00 a.m.- Every time you watch a baseball game, you see something you have never seen before. This one had a lot of new twists in it and became one of the most entertaining games I have ever watched. I love baseball.

2:25 a.m.- I am finished editing my article so that it (hopefully) makes sense. I am going to sleep but I cannot get over how great of game that was! Goodnight!

Why Baseball Is Great

We are officially at, or just past (depending on the team), the midway point in the Major League Baseball season. In the sport with the fewest playoff spots, there are so many teams competing for the right to play in October. The lack of playoff spots is one of the many things that makes this sport so special. Just eight of the 30 MLB teams will make the postseason, compared to the 16 playoff teams in both the NBA and NHL and the 12 NFL teams that vie for the right to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

Having such few teams make the playoffs creates a strong emphasis on succeeding in the regular season, and as long as baseball’s regular season is, we have the potential to see some very compelling races in August and September. Twenty teams either lead a division or are within seven games of a playoff spot. There is no division separated by more than a four game lead.

A number of surprise teams remain in the mix for a playoff spot. Behind Andrew McCutchen, the Pittsburgh Pirates sit at 41-39, just two games behind the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central. The Arizona Diamondbacks are two games behind the San Francisco Giants in the NL West and three games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL Wild Card race with a record of 44-38. The New York Mets and Washington Nationals are 5.5 and 6.5 games behind Atlanta in the Wild Card race, respectively.

In the American League, few thought that the Cleveland Indians would spend 80 days during the first half of the year leading the Central. The Indians have stumbled slightly, but are 0.5 games behind the Detroit Tigers right now. Rookie sensation Michael Pineda has helped the Seattle Mariners come within 3.5 games of the defending AL Champion Texas Rangers in the West, even though the Mariners have been outscored by 13 runs this season and have a record below .500, at 39-42. After losing Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford, Jason Bartlett, Matt Garza, Rafael Soriano and their entire 2010 bullpen to free agency and various trades, the Tampa Bay Rays sit just four games behind the New York Yankees in the East and 1.5 games behind the Boston Red Sox for the AL Wild Card. The Rays are 45-36 despite having star third baseman Evan Longoria play in only 53 games during the first half of the season.

The first half of the Major League Baseball season featured many storylines, but none may be more compelling than the playoff races that will determine the fate of the 20 teams who have their eyes on the postseason. There will be teams who falter down the stretch during the second half of the season. However, with so many teams fighting year in and year out for one of the precious few trips to the postseason, baseball’s emphasis on a strong regular season is unrivaled by any sport. With 20 teams in competition for just eight playoff spots, the next three months of the season will feature postseason races that come down to the wire and show just why baseball is so special.

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.