With the playoffs just around the corner, the Tampa Bay Rays made a significant move towards winning the wild card this past weekend. After defeating the Red Sox in 3 out of 4 games, the Rays now stand just 2 games out of the playoff hunt behind the Red Sox. This, after being 7 games out of the race just a short time ago. Given that the Tigers are likely to play the wild card winner from the East, the Rays could potentially be the Tigers first round opponent. Right now, I am not sure the Tigers want to face them.
Here are some reasons the Rays are a potential pain in the arse.
1. Rotational Pull
Of all the potential playoff opponents for the Tigers, the Rays, maybe outside of the Angels, have the most formidable starting rotation. While the Rays don’t have a Justin Verlander on their roster, their depth 1-4 in the rotation is a factor that the other teams in the A.L playoffs can’t provide, including the Tigers. David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, and Jeff Niemann all possess shut-down potential, and if they choose their match-ups right, they may have the advantage over the Tigers overall.
While David Price is their #1 guy in the rotation, he isn’t even having the best year. James Shields has been tremendous this season, going 15-11 with an ERA of 2.78. The even more impressive thing about Shields is that he has 11 complete games, which is easily the best in the American League. Price is no slouch either, posting just a 12-12 record on the season, but he does have a 3.36 ERA, over 200 strikeouts, and has been better in the 2nd half of the season. Rookie Jeremy Hellickson is 13-10 with an ERA of 2.91, and Jeff Niemann is 11-7 with an ERA of 3.95. Like Price, Niemann has been stronger in the 2nd half, posting an ERA of 3.57.
Regardless of who the Rays throw on the mound, they keep their team in the game on most nights.
2. SPF 100 Needed
The Tigers are the hottest team in baseball right now, but the Rays aren’t far behind. The Rays have already been playing playoff baseball for a couple of weeks already. Every game counts isn’t just a slogan for them right now, and under those circumstances, the Rays have been outstanding. Since the beginning of August, the Rays have a record of 29-16, helping them make the charge towards winning the wild card.
Given that the Rays are going to have to keep the pedal to the metal in order to win a playoff berth, momentum could be a big factor for them if they get into the playoffs. Essentially, their guys are going to be sharp, having to play at a high level for their last 10 games just to get in. It’s a scenario that is reminiscent of last year’s San Francisco Giants, who snuck into the playoffs at the last moment in 2010. The Giants rode the momentum wave, and their pitching to a World Series title last year. The Rays, like the Giants, rely on pitching and the ability to win close games. In 2011, the Rays have a 25-18 record in one run games.
3. The Mad Scientist
Joe Maddon, to put it lightly, isn’t the most conventional manager in the world. He sure does seem to pull the right strings however. From taking your best player in Evan Longoria and leading him off, to walking a batter with runners on 1st and 2nd, Joe Maddon isn’t afraid to try something a little different. It may backfire from time to time, but ultimately for the apparently few Rays fans out there, you can’t argue with the results.
Maddon has led a team in 2011 that was devastated by departures in the off-season to a record of 85-67. Not a lot of people, despite their starting rotation, were giving the Rays much of a chance to make the playoffs. They replaced their entire bullpen, lost Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena, and are financially strapped to the point that they wait to bring up guys that can help them win in order to slow down their arbitration clocks. Despite all this, the aggressive and sometimes odd management by Joe Maddon has put them in position to once again make the playoffs in 2011.
Maddon is the kind of guy who would start Jeff Niemann against Justin Verlander to open a playoff series in an effort to get favorable match-ups in the next three games. Its that kind of non-robotic thinking that makes the Rays unpredictable and a little difficult to play.
4. Wise Beyond Their Years
Its a little surprising to say this, given that not one member of their starting rotation is 30 years old yet, and the same could be said for almost their whole roster, but the playoffs are becoming old news for the Rays. If the Rays make the post-season in 2011, that will be the 3rd time in the last 4 years and the experience factor can’t be overlooked. There is some good playoff experience on the Rays, and adding a guy like Johnny Damon to the mix is only going to help.
The Rays are a young and hungry team, and have tasted the post-season more recently than most of the Tigers. The experiences they have gained in the last couple of years could be a factor.
5. The Will Rhymes Factor
No, I am not expecting Will Rhymes of the Tigers to be a factor in this series, but Will Rhymes is known for his scrappy play and attitude, and so are the Rays. To put it lightly, the Rays have somewhat of a lackluster offense. It’s one of their main issues with their team, so they have to find ways to scrape out runs. In a playoff series, where tension is high, manufacturing runs and forcing the issue can cause mistakes by a team’s opponents. This is one of the main reasons the Rays are a scary opponent. Joe Maddon will have no issue sending a runner late in the game and playing aggressive baseball instead of waiting for the home run to win the game.
The positives of playing the Rays for the Tigers are numerous as well. First, they are 6-1 against the Rays this season, so there is a history of success and somewhat of a psychological edge in that. Two, they will have the home field advantage against the Rays, and could potentially have almost as many fans at Tropicana Field as well. Third, the Tigers have a decided edge offensively over the Rays. Their pitching could shut us down somewhat, but the Tigers have the ability to score in bunches, and I’m not sure the Rays can match it.