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Posted: Tuesday August 5, 2008 11:33AM; Updated: Tuesday August 5, 2008 11:33AM
Tom Verducci Tom Verducci >
INSIDE BASEBALL

Why the Rays have what it takes to stay in the AL East race

Story Highlights
  • Tampa Bay is 66-45 and has a three-game lead in the American League East
  • The Rays have never won more than 70 games or finished higher than fourth
  • They will benefit from two key additions that won't cost money or players
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David Price
David Price has been dominant in the minor leagues and will be a huge boost to the Rays' staff.
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If 109 games didn't convince you the Tampa Bay Rays are for real, game number 110 should have done the trick. The Rays were dominated Sunday by Detroit starter Armando Galarraga, putting only four runners on base in seven innings, they trailed by two runs in the eighth inning and one run in the 10th inning, their closer gave up home runs in the ninth and 10th innings -- and the Rays still won the game. And there were 33,438 people at The Trop.

"And we didn't even have a concert after the game," said VP of baseball operations Gerry Hunsicker, knowing until now such recycled acts as Kool and the Gang had been a bigger draw at the St. Pete ballpark than manager Joe Maddon's new kids on the block.

Tampa fans seem convinced by now that the Rays are not going to collapse. The Rays' pitching and defense have been too good -- and healthy. Outside of four or five starts Scott Kazmir was unable to make at the start of the season because of a tender elbow, Tampa Bay starters virtually have not missed a turn in the rotation. (See The Schilling Rule: the team whose original five starters make the most starts, wins.) The Rays are ridiculously good at home, which may be just plain good fortune, but they believe their athleticism and familiarity with The Trop's turf and tricky lighting (particularly in picking up balls off the bat from the outfield) add to their homefield edge. And they are resilient, having bounced back from that 0-7 tailspin heading into the break with an 11-5 run until running into the remarkable Cliff Lee and the Indians on Monday.

Oh, and then there is this: help is on the way to make them even better. While the Red Sox (Jason Bay added, the Manny melodrama subtracted) and Yankees (Xavier Nady, Damaso Marte and Ivan Rodriguez added) believe they made themselves better in the days leading up to the trade deadline, the Rays have done nothing. Until now. Very soon, probably within the next week or two, they will add an impact pitcher and yet another athletic outfielder. The cost? Nothing. David Price and Rocco Baldelli are the kind of reinforcements who can influence a pennant race.

Price, the No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft, is wasting his high-quality stuff on getting minor league hitters out. He is 10-0 with a 1.97 ERA in the minors. At 23, he's older than Joba Chamberlain, and, because of an early season injury, he has thrown only 86 2/3 innings, leaving him fresh for the Rays down the stretch. The only problem is the Rays don't know what to do with him. Do you plug him into the rotation and remove Andy Sonnanstine, the team leader in wins despite a 4.58 ERA, or Edwin Jackson? Do you turn him into your 2007 version of Chamberlain and deploy him as your special operations reliever? The haven't decided yet.

Baldelli, too, challenges the Rays on how best he will be used. He cannot be an everyday player because of his muscle fatigue condition, and might never again be that kind of player. But Baldelli could help as the right-handed DH two or three times a week and perhaps as a rightfielder once a week, with occasional duty as a pinch runner or defensive replacement. But the Rays have no idea how he will hold up under such use, even after his 20-day minor league rehab expired. (He didn't get much outfield work there.)

Both Price and Baldelli will help, particularly Price. He has dominating stuff, and when his teammates see him bring that kind of stuff to the mound, either as a starter or a reliever, they will be energized by such an addition. Each start they allow him in the minors is another wasted opportunity for the big league team.

Meanwhile, the Rays continue down the road toward something historic. The win Sunday equaled their total from last year, 66. They have a chance to be among the most improved teams in baseball history. Look at it this way: the Rays had 52 games remaining after Sunday. If they cooled off and played .500 ball the rest of the way, they would still win 92 games. And if they maintained their pace of playing .600 ball, they would win 97 games.

With 97 wins, Tampa Bay would become only the 10th team since 1900 to improve by at least 31 wins. Here are the other nine teams to have done so:

Biggest Year-over-Year Improvement
Team Win Improvement Final Record Finish
1903 Giants +36 84-55 2
1999 Diamondbacks +35 100-62 Won Division
1962 Phillies +34 81-80 7
1946 Red Sox +33 104-50 Won Pennant
1989 Orioles +33 87-75 2
1904 Cardinals +32 75-79 5
1905 Phillies +31 83-69 4
1919 White Sox +31 88-52 Won Pennant
1993 Giants +31 103-59 2

The Rays don't have much margin for error. They are 10th in the league in runs, for instance. (The 2005 Astros are the the only one of 26 pennant winners in the wild card era to rank at least that low in runs.) They are 20-11 in one-run games. They open their September schedule with 12 of 15 games against the Red Sox and Yankees, including six games on a huge nine-game trip to Toronto, Boston and New York. But what experience did the Rockies and Diamondbacks have down the stretch last year? The Rays are comfortable playing tight games and they have a confidence reflected in rookie third baseman Evan Longoria, in the same way rookie Troy Tulowitzki represented the Rockies' vibe last year.

"It's impressive for such a young player how calm and steady he plays this game," Hunsicker said. "Nothing seems to faze him."

The Rays also have the comfort of the Trop, which is starting to look like the Kingdome did to Seattle in 1995. The Mariners never had won a thing until then and their domed ballpark was derided as a dreary concrete obstacle to their advancement. But as Seattle won, the Kingdome morphed into a source of energy for the home team. The Mariners were 46-27 at home that year, including 20-7 down the stretch, capped by a one-game playoff win over the Angels.

The Rays still have many, uncharted miles to go before they can start thinking about playing a postseason game in the Trop. The Red Sox and Yankees have the kind of pedigree that can't be dismissed. But Tampa Bay has what it takes to keep this a three-team race to the end.

 
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