Every year in baseball there are the surprising contenders and the unsurprising contenders. Look at the National League and all you’ll see is the usual suspects – the first place Nats, Cards, and Dodgers, with the preseason darling Mets and Cubs joining the defending World Champion Giants in the wild card chase. Over in the AL, however, things are different – the current first place teams are the Royals, Astros, and Rays, none of whom were predicted to do much of anything before the season began.
In hindsight, maybe we were missing something obvious. These teams were bound to be successful, but we just didn’t want to see it. Nobody wanted to admit how close Houston was, or that KC was for real. But the Rays, who were perhaps the most popular pick of the three, are the real surprise of the bunch. They were said to need lots of things to go right with their pitching to contend. Lots has gone wrong, but what’s gone right has somehow made up for it and then some. Which is how they find themselves where they are.
The Seattle Mariners have gone 3-3 on the first two legs of this road trip, which is set to wrap up after these three games in Tampa. In order to go home without having lost any more ground, they’ll need to get through a young rotation where seemingly everyone’s emerging as an ace. And not like the pitchers will have a much easier time – Tampa’s got a top ten offense. Those position players also make up a top ten defense. The Rays are good, whether we saw it coming or not.
Evan Longoria had his first subpar season a year ago, but he’s come back strong with a typically robust batting line and great defense at the hot corner. Kevin Kiermaier is doing is best to avoid the sophomore slump by countering some offensive regression with defensive amazingness. Logan Forsythe is this year’s unexpected Rays breakthrough guy, since you know this team’s going to have a player like this every single year.
Those have been the Rays best players so far, but it’s not like anyone outside of catcher Rene Rivera has been outright bad. Desmond Jennings has disappointed, sure, but Brandon Guyer is mashing. David DeJesus has been a force. Steven Souza and Tim Beckham are enjoying nice debuts. It’s a deep, rounded offense with very few holes.
The Rays’ biggest strength has been their young rotation, which has fared more than alright while coping with the losses of ace Alex Cobb and 2014 breakout arm Drew Smyly. They’ve managed to deal because Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi have made the jump to elite territory, and either or both of the two can probably be considered aces at this point. Nate Karns has been a nice surprise as well, and the guys at the back end have done just enough.
Brad Boxberger and Brandon Gomes lead a bullpen that ranks tenth in MLB. Top ten offense, top ten defense, top ten bullpen, top ten rotation… the Rays have it all, and perhaps the surprise isn’t that they’re good, but rather that they’re not even better. At 24-21, Tampa Bay has been good enough to rise above a weak crop of competitors in the East. But given the team they’ve got, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect even more from them.
Today’s game features Odorizzi and Roenis Elias, who’s got his ERA down to 2.76 and is enjoying a pretty terrific start to his second major league season. Odorizzi has been the fourth-best AL pitcher, trailing only Corey Kluber, Michael Pineda, and Sonny Gray in WAR. That’s how you deal with losing an ace to Tommy John – get a huge break and watch one of your young guys transform into a frontline starter.
Tomorrow pits J.A. Happ against Alex Colome, who’s been better than his ERA would suggest. The series (and road trip) concludes with Felix Day, as King Felix Hernandez goes against Chris Archer in one of the season’s most tantalizing pitching matchups thus far. Archer, by the way, ranks sixth among AL pitchers. That’s right – both young Tampa arms have been more valuable even than the King. Good team, those Rays.
Before the road trip began a lot of people floated 6-3 as their dream record for the trip. 9-0 would be best, of course, but what these guys really needed to do sooner than later was finish a stretch soundly in the black. With a sweep of the Rays, the Mariners would pull themselves to .500. Funny how we keep finding ourselves asking for sweeps these days.
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