If death and taxes are certainties in life, Tampa Bay’s baseball team and futility were certainties in Major League Baseball.
Debuting in the big leagues in 1998 as the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the team was perennially amongst MLB’s worst teams, averaging an atrocious 64.5 wins and 97.2 losses—with three 100-loss and two 99-loss seasons in that span—up until this year.
The team added manager Lou Piniella in 2003—who won a World Series with the Cincinnati Reds in 1990 and led the Seattle Mariners to a record tying 116 regular season wins—hoping that his success could rub off on the franchise.
Although Piniella led Tampa Bay to a then franchise-best 70 wins mark in year two of his tenure in Florida, the team never finished higher than fourth in the division during the “Lou” era. Piniella left in 2005.
The losing continued with Joe Maddon who saw the team lose 101 games in his first season (2006) and 96 more last season.
A New Face
The changes for Tampa Bay happened in 2008. The team tinkered with their name, ditching the “Devil” and keeping the “Rays.” Tampa Bay’s logo was no longer about something that lives in the dark seas but rather an uplifting shining symbol.
As principal owner, Stuart Sternberg said at the time, “We are now the ‘Rays’—a beacon that radiates throughout Tampa Bay and across the entire state of Florida.”
As of Tuesday, the Rays are not only ahead of the New York Yankees but also the Boston Red Sox, and every other team in the American League East, with a record of 79–51.
They currently are tied with the L.A. Angels for the best record in the AL and also as the second best team in baseball, behind only the Chicago Cubs.
The team isn’t doing it with its bats either. It is being done with pitching—after all, defense wins championships.
Last season, Tampa Bay had the worst earned run average in all of the majors. But this year they have the second best at 3.71 behind only the Toronto Blue Jays’ 3.63.
One of the lone bright spots for the Rays last season (no pun intended) was the play of starting pitcher Scott Kazmir, who led the AL in strikeouts.
Picking Up the Slack
Kazmir got off to a rough start, missing parts of spring training and the season with an elbow injury, but a number of pitchers picked up the slack;
– Jamie Shields leads the team in strikeouts this year currently with 139.
– Andy Sonnanstine, who was 6–10 last year, leads the team with wins, currently sporting a 13–6 record.
In fact, the Rays have four pitchers in total (Sonnanstine, Shields, Matt Garza, and Edwin Jackson) who have double-digit win totals. The Toronto Blue Jays and L.A. Dodgers (best and third best ERA respectively) only have two, and the Chicago Cubs (fourth best ERA) have three.
One might look at the Rays and refer to them as a one-year-wonder or a flash in the pan, but consider this:
They’re tops in the AL East despite a number of injuries to key players throughout the season.
On top of Kazmir, center fielder Rocco Baldelli has also spent a long time on the disabled list and talented rookie Evan Longoria (wrist), left fielder Carl Crawford (right middle finger) and closer Troy Percival (knee) are still injured. Still, the Rays have gone 14–6 in their last 20 games.
Also, the average age of the entire roster is 27.8, meaning many players are entering or are in their prime, which bodes well for the future.
The Rays aren’t that potent of a team offensively, though. Carlos Pena leads the team in HRs with 26 and Longoria leads the team (amongst players appearing in 100+ games) in batting average with .278.
The regular season isn’t over yet, but the Rays look like they’re in good shape to make the postseason for the first time in franchise history.