Falling For the Tampa Bay Rays

Confession time: I’ve got a new vice.

Don’t worry though, it’s not alcohol or drugs, fast cars or loose women. It’s not dark chocolate or cigarettes. And despite what rumors might be floating around out there about me, it’s definitely not late night re-runs of Sex and the City. I swear.

Nope, my new vice is Tampa Bay Rays baseball, and truthfully, I can’t enough. More importantly, after watching them pick apart the Yankees this weekend, I think we’ve officially got our favorites to win the American League.

Before I go any further, please understand that while the Rays may be my vice, the Red Sox are still my team. I root for Boston through the good and the bad, the pretty and ugly, whether Terry Francona is winning Manager of the Year or picking his nose in the dugout of a last place team. And I still most definitely root for Boston when they play Tampa Bay.

But with the Red Sox season stuck in neutral (Honestly, I give the team credit for not folding, but am realistic. With the way Tampa Bay and New York are playing, it doesn’t seem like we’re catching either), and generally more uneventful than a senior citizens bingo game, I find myself watching the Rays more and more.

From what I can tell, they’re just about a perfect baseball team. I’m sure advanced stats and metrics might say otherwise, but from an ascetically pleasing standpoint, nobody has them beat. They’re the perfect blend of old-school and new school, speed and power, pitching and defense. Athletically, they’re second and none, and in a sport where most first basemen have the same physique as the guy on Man vs. Food, the Rays are always are always on the move, always making plays and always putting pressure on the other team.

On the bases are where the Rays are the most fun. They hit and run, take the extra base, and steal bases, almost like one of those well coached Little League teams that wins every game by 10 runs, and causes the other team’s parents to complain.

Statistically, Tampa Bay ranks first in baseball with 131 steals this season, a full 33 ahead of their closest competitors, the Chicago White Sox. That number is even more impressive when you consider that they’ve been caught just 32 times, making the Rays 80 percent success rate second in the game (By comparison, the White Sox are ranked just 22nd in that category). Those are pretty darn good numbers, especially in an era where most managers still view stealing bases like Rosie O’Donnell views a salad bar: With utter disdain. In Tampa Bay everyone has the green light, and everyone takes advantage. Five players have swiped at least nine bags this year, four have 14 or more.

Defensively, the Rays versatility is their strength. They’re a team full of utility guys that have each others backs, allowing everyone to get a day off when needed.

Let me give you an example: A few weeks back, I went to a Rays-Orioles game in Baltimore, a game better known as, “The Night Carl Crawford Got Hit In The Nuts With A Pick-Off Throw.” Good times.

Anyway, when he went down, the logical move would have been to stick some second-rate schmuck into Crawford’s two hole in the lineup, and pray the guy didn’t come up late, in a crucial situation. Not the Rays. Nope, they moved Reid Brignac from shortstop to second base base, Ben Zobrist from second to right field, Matt Joyce from right field to left field, then plugged Jason Bartlett- a regular starter who had the night off- into the second spot at shortstop, and didn’t miss a beat. I’m just glad I wasn’t keeping score that night.

And while that one example might not be a big deal at first glance, it was actually huge. The versaility that the Rays showed in that one circumstance proves that they’re bigger than one injury, even to one of their best players. That point was validated this weekend, when Zobrist missed the entire Yankees series with a sore back, and Carlos Pena Sunday’s game too. The Rays just plugged the next guy in, and took two out of three from the team with the best record in baseball. Even if Evan Longoria- their superstar third baseman went down- Tampa would have someone adequate to fill in for him. Could the Yankees say the same thing if Derek Jeter got hurt? How about Albert Pujols on the Cardinals. Let’s see how the Phillies handle life without Ryan Howard this week (He got injured Sunday afternoon).

Speaking of Longoria, I’ve got to mention him, because the guy is just a gamer. Someone who might not stand out above any other superstar on TV, but watching him in person gives you a totally different vibe.

Believe me, when I was in Baltimore I kept a close eye on him. He’s a guy who doesn’t waste pitches at the plate, and legs out every hit like it’s Game 7 of the World Series.

One play in particular stood out to me when I saw him in person: It was a hard hit ball that got past him down the third base line, despite his best best effort at a diving stop. Once Longoria realized he wasn’t going to make the play, he laid in the dirt for an extra half second, and slammed his fist on the ground, like a whiny kid who didn’t get any ice cream after dinner. Keep in mind that this was a meaningless day game, against a last place team, and the Rays had a comfortable lead. Yet Longoria was still pissed he didn’t make the play. Think he cares much?

Honestly, the whole thing reminded me of the scene in Rudy where Vince Vaughn yells at the title character, “It’s the last practice of the season, and this a**hole thinks it’s the Super Bowl.” I’m pretty sure Longoria is the baseball version of that. It also helps explain his tiff with B.J. Upton a few weeks ago, when the centerfielder didn’t run out a grounder. Anything less than 100 percent ain’t cool in Longoria’s world.

(Want my totally unfounded arm-chair analysis on the guy? Well too bad you’re going to get it anyway.

According to his Wikipedia page, Longoria wasn’t offered a college scholarship out of high school, and had to go to junior college before finally getting to play at Long Beach State. Meaning that nothing has ever been handed to him, and unlike a lot of superstars, probably doesn’t take playing the game for granted.

I don’t know if that theory holds any water, but it sounds good, right?

Let’s get back to the article)

Sticking with the defense, the Rays are tailor-made for their fast-track, field-turfed, kinda out of the 1970’s ballpark. They’re strong up the middle with Jason Bartlett at shortstop and super-athletic in the outfield, turning doubles and triples headed for the gap into singles. That alone all but killed a Yankees rally in the ninth inning Sunday, when Nick Swisher hit a rocket down the right field line, and Joyce cut it off, keeping Swisher at first base. New York could never get anything going from there, with Swisher ending the inning, and the game, at second base.

Meanwhile, after all this talk, I haven’t even mentioned the pitching.

If you’re really interested in the nitty gritty stats, feel free to look them up. But when it comes to the Rays, just know this: They took two out of three from the perceived best team in baseball this weekend, with the two wins coming from their rookie No. 5 starter (Wade Davis, who’s statline looked like this: 7 IP, 4H, 2ER, 6K) and their worst statistical pitcher, James Shields (7.1 IP, 4H, 0ER, 11K). The Yankees didn’t even see the Rays two best starters, David Price and Jeff Niemann, a pair who’d likely be starting Game’s 1 and 2 of an ALCS, if the two teams make it there. And oh by the way, did I mention that their No. 3 starter (Matt Garza), just threw a no-hitter two starts ago? Or that they’ve got a bullpen full of power arms, which could be the biggest key to an October run?

Onto the playoffs, and the point of this article. Because after the weekend, I’m thinking the Rays are the favorites in the American League.

Sure the Rangers and White Sox might have something to say, and at the same time I understand why everyone likes the Yankees: They’ve got names you know, the deepest bullpen in baseball, lots of power, good pitching, and oh by the way, happen to win a whole lot of games too. Tampa also caught New York at a moment of weakness, with the pressure of 600 home runs getting to A-Rod, C.C. Sabathia submitting a stinker Sunday and Andy Pettitte on the D.L. The Yankees will be ready for October.

At the same time though, two plays from Sunday’s game stood out to me, and showed why the Rays are better than the Yanks…at least right now.

The first came in the third inning, when the Rays scored their second run of the game. With Brignac on third and Upton at first, Crawford hit a high chopper toward Derek Jeter at shortstop. He fielded the ball knowing he had no play at second, yet by the time he looked over to first, there was no play there either. Everyone was safe, and Tampa had added to their lead.

The second was an inning later, with Jason Bartlett at the plate. He hit a slow roller to first, where Lance Berkman (filling in for Mark Teixeria) tried to field the ball and rushed a flip to the covering Sabathia at first base. Bartlett ended up being safe. And while the play meant little in the grand scheme of the game, it showed me everything I needed to know about the two teams.

On one side were the Yankees, a team many call “veteran,” but one that just looked old this weekend. They were slow on the bases and looked like they were stuck in the mud defensively. At the plate, they seemed to be waiting for a big hit, waiting for a home run, just waiting for anything to happen. It never did.

On the other side were the Rays, young and athletic, taking the extra base, putting pressure on the defense on every single play. The only thing they were waiting on was for the other team to make a mistake, which seems to happen every night for the Rays.

In the end, we could be in for a classic October matchup between these two, a pair that have as little in common as two baseball teams can: Veteran vs. youth. Relative inexperience vs. as much experience as anyone. Big budget vs. small market. Power vs. speed. Baseball’s most storied franchise vs. a team newer than a fresh coat of paint.

Whether that series ends up happening or not remainds to be seen.

Until then, I’m just going to back and relax.

And enjoy the Tampa Bay Rays.

(Love the article? Hate it? Think Aaron’s an idiot? Let him know by commenting below, or e-mailing him at ATorres00@gmail.com.

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About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.