Tampa Bay Rays: 2008 AL East Champions
Stop and soak in that statement for a moment. The Tampa Bay Rays sans Devil are one of eight teams that qualified for the playoffs and they did it by winning the toughest division in baseball. Despite 10 years of losing, the Rays now have more playoff appearances in the last 11 years than six franchises; more division titles in the last 11 years than 10 teams. In the last 11 years, the Rays have more AL East championships than the Blue Jays and Orioles combined.
And what a ride it has been. The Rays took to heart the first rule of feuds. Always punch up a weight class. It started in spring training when the Yankees whined about getting their precious pinstripes dirty. The Rays responded by punching the Yankees right in the mouth. Then the Red Sox played dirty and then cried when the Rays didn’t back down. The Rays responded by punching the Sox right in the mouth. The Rays had announced their presence with authority and showed they will no longer be so easily dismissed.
And let’s be clear … This is not the 2007 Rockies. The Rays did not sneak into the playoffs through the back door. The Rays held first place for the final 75 days of the regular season. And every time the Red Sox got close and “experts” predicted the clock to strike midnight, the Rays faced the bullies of the AL East…And they won.
Now everybody wants to know if the Cinderella Rays can keep it up under the pressure of the national stage. First up is the Chicago White Sox. Can the dream season continue? Let’s ask the Magic 8-ball.
1. The Rays finished the regular season 13-14 and looked very mediocre at times…Can the Rays turn it on in the postseason? Magic 8-ball says: The Rays played 18 of their final 25 games on the road, where they went 40-41 this year. On the other hand, the Rays have home field advantage in the first round and Dome Sweet Dome couldn’t have come at a better time. The Rays went 57-24 at home this season, the best home mark in baseball since the Yankees in 1998. On top of that the White Sox were 5-17 in domes this season, with a .664 OPS in those 22 games. Add to that the emotionally draining one-game playoff, which was followed by a celebration and a late-night flight to St. Pete and it is easy to imagine the Rays getting off to a strong start in this series.
2. The Rays were only ninth in the AL in runs scored this season…Can the Rays score enough runs to win the ALDS? Magic 8-ball says: The Rays may actually be peaking (health-wise) at the right time. The Rays four biggest offensive weapons (Evan Longoria, Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, B.J. Upton) all missed significant time due to injury, with Crawford, Pena and Longoria available at the same time for only 87 games this season. All three are healthy and available for the first time in a while.
Crawford may even be healthier than he has been since the first half as the recent time off for a finger injury has allowed his sore hamstrings time to recover. And while the Rays averaged less than five runs per game, the postseason plays right into the strength of the team. In October, bullpens reign supreme and 3-1 games are more the rule than the exception. So while the Rays offense could be better in the postseason, with the Rays’ bullpen, it doesn’t necessarily have to be.
3.Which hitter could be the biggest key to the Rays’ offense? Magic 8-ball says: Akinori Iwamura. The White Sox enter this series with a rotation that has been working on three days rest and a pitching staff that was forced into action on Monday and Tuesday while the Rays were at home resting. The rotation is filled with workhorses, but there may only be so many bullets in their arms each night. It is imperative that the Rays’ hitters force the starters to throw extra pitches and that starts with the leadoff hitter. If Aki can do that, the Rays will eventually get to the starters and they will walk off the mound to the sound of 36,000 fans chanting along with “Seven Nation Army”.
4.Which starting pitcher is the key to the Rays’ rotation? Magic 8-ball says: Scott Kazmir. The Rays’ game two starter gave up eight home runs in his last three starts and has only worked past the sixth inning once in his last 19 appearances. With a strong bullpen and extra days off in the postseason, the Rays can survive an outing in which Kazmir only works five innings. But if the Rays are going to have a chance to win those starts, he needs to avoid the long balls and rediscover his comfort zone.
5. With Troy Percival likely out for the first round, which relief pitcher is the key to the bullpen? Magic 8-ball says: JP Howell. A converted starter, Howell is not your typical lefty reliever. He logged 89.1 innings this season and was repeatedly called upon to get big outs in the middle innings. At some point this series, Howell will be brought into a situation that could change the momentum of the entire series. If he delivers in the same fashion as he has done all season, the Rays will move on to the ALCS.
6.When all is said and done, will the Rays win this series and advance to the ALCS? Magic 8-ball says: The question should be: “Will the White Sox even win a game?”