A Ray of hope in Tampa Bay

September 5, 2008

Last November, the Tampa Bay Rays introduced a new nickname, new uniforms, and a promise for new winning ways. This November, the Rays may be introducing something else: a trophy to St. Petersburg. When this month was ushered in, the perennial cellar dwellers had the best record in the majors and had gone from fluke to pretender to contender to a team controlling its own destiny.

No longer is Tropicana Field a desolate pit of despair. The fans come out and show their support for the home team. The atmosphere is electric, ringing with the team-symbol Cowbell. The team has performed under these conditions, going 18-1 when playing for crowds of 30,000+ at home. No longer are people embarrassed to wear Rays gear; they are proud.

It’s hard to say what facet of their game is most significant to their success. After a bullpen ERA that was the worst in Major League history last year, their bullpen is fourth best this year at 3.41. Grant Balfour has a superb ERA under 1.5. The team has 10 walk-off victories, second only to the Marlins, with Gabe Gross, a defensive-minded outfielder acquired in a trade mid-season, hitting 3 of those 10. The team’s defense has greatly improved, with Gold Glove and Rookie of the Year contender Evan Longoria at third base and defensive wizard Jason Bartlett at shortstop. Or the most impressive stat of all: every start this year by a Ray has been by a pitcher at the age of 26 or younger. The winning percentage for teams when starting a player at age 26 or younger in the majors this year is .497. For the Rays it’s .622.

Perhaps the greatest moment of all is the return and success of Rocco Baldelli. Once dubbed the future franchise player and given Joe DiMaggio’s #5 to boot, Baldelli found himself stricken with a mitochondrial disorder in spring training that made recovering from exercise near impossible. It was strongly questioned if he would ever play again. Yet in August, Baldelli returned to fill a void on the team, and as of September 3rd, he was batting .351 in 13 games, including a game winning double on August 30th.

Heading into this year, the predictions nearly across the board were simple. The Red Sox and the Yankees would contend to win the division. Toronto and Baltimore would be average. The Rays would be weak again. Yet looking now, this isn’t true at all. The Rays hold a lead over the Red Sox for the division.

This reporter said in an article previewing the 2008 season in March, “If everything goes right, they will even be in playoff contention the final week of the season.” Despite several August injuries to Longoria, Carl Crawford, and Troy Percival, they not only still aim to be in playoff contention the final week of the season; they may already have clinched the playoffs by then.

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