It is in this, their finest moment as a franchise, that we’re reminded once again just how pathetic Tampa Bay has been over the years.
We scoffed at the name change, but it apparently has made all the difference.
The Devil Rays? They were that annual bunch of losers, an also-ran in a division that demanded excellence and plenty of cash to contend. These, my friend, are the brand-new Rays, the matured offspring that has already delivered the greatest month in team history. No Devil Rays team had ever been in first place or three games above .500 this late into the season. These destined Rays, winners of six straight, accomplished the feat with a three-game sweep of the Red Sox over the weekend.
It’s April 28. The fact that this is something to be excited about comes over as kind of lame.
That’s not to say this isn’t a major turn of events as far as this franchise is concerned. The Rays are stocked with burgeoning young talent and an eye-opening pitching staff that has the second-best ERA in the American League. Their bullpen’s 2.37 ERA is the best in all of baseball. Opposing offenses are hitting just .237 against Rays pitching, the best in the AL, as the staff held Boston, which has scored more runs than anyone in the league (133), to just five runs over the weekend in Tampa’s first-ever three-game sweep of Boston.
There should be excitement. The Rays have an interesting mix on a team that is proving it might be able to contend over the next five months. It's just that based on history, it doesn’t take much to generate Rays Fever.
Nobody is exactly ready to call this past weekend a changing of the guard sequence of events by any means, but the Rays are tied for first place and it’s almost May. That's big news in Tampa, a mere footnote everywhere else. We're only about one-seventh through the 2008 schedule, and Red Sox fans have yet to witness David Ortiz overcome his Mendoza Flu or Jacoby Ellsbury walking on water. Based on the outings of Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz, the starting staff is still in fine shape, better than can be said of the bullpen. And despite the recent slumps of Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia, the Sox may bust the team record for hits in the month of April, Pedroia's 36 are the most in the AL, followed by 34 from Manny Ramirez.
The Rays, meanwhile, are getting top-notch starting from the likes of James Shields and remarkable relief from the once-thought washed up Troy Percival. Carlos Pena is proving that 2007 wasn’t a fluke, tied for the league lead in home runs with six, while another former Boston short-termer, Eric Hinske, is tearing it up with a .994 OPS (in 68 at-bats). Evan Longoria is going to be such a household name that we predict it’s only June by the time he wants to punch someone for another “Desperate Housewives” quip.
The Orioles, Rays, and Red Sox are all tied for first today. You tell me which one of the three is most likely to stay.
Still, keep in mind that the Rays have gone on this historic stretch without staff ace and noted Red Sox killer Scott Kazmir, who is recovering from an elbow strain, and they are proving some preseason number crunchers a bit more prophetic than, oh, the Detroit Tigers. The Sporting News’ David Pinto gave Tampa’s pitching staff a good chance of becoming the class of the AL East, which it is so far. Baseball Prospectus predicted this would be the greatest season in Tampa Bay Rays history, which, sadly, it already is.
PECOTA predicted an 88-win season for the Rays in 2008. They’re on pace for 90-91 wins right now.
That would, of course, be the aforementioned greatest season in team history, and would no doubt be in the mix for the wild card or even the AL East title depending upon how much Tampa can win consistently against the Red Sox and Yankees the rest of the season. But must we get into fantasy right now? After all, they’re dancing on the beach over an April first-place record and three games over .500.
“The Rays have had grand moments before,” writes the St. Petersburg Times’ John Romano. “Wade Boggs gave us one night. Doug Waechter gave us another. The 12-game winning streak in the middle of 2004 was the greatest collective achievement. But there has never been anything like this.”
It’s exciting all right; a young team annually destined for the dregs of the division may finally have something to play for. But when a three-games-above-.500 mark is your franchise’s crowning achievement thus far, well, sorry that just sucks.
"There has never been anything like this."
The pennant, that's a discussion for way down the road, perhaps beyond 2008. But the Rays made it even clearer over the weekend that they are doormats no longer, and might not be going away soon. And if they keep doing to everyone else what they did to the Red Sox, that’s going to turn out to be a problem for the rest of the AL East.