So here we are, a third of the way into the baseball season, and
perennial cellar-dwellers, the Tampa Bay Rays, are atop the American
League East, with the best win percentage in the major leagues.
You shouldn’t be, not if you read this column regularly, because Rays manager Joe Maddon told us this would happen. It was March 20, in the first MLB Report posted here this season, when I was covering spring training in Florida.
“Bring on Boston,” Maddon told me. “Bring on the Yankees. Bring on Toronto, too. We can play with these ballclubs now. It's no longer a case of us on the rise. We're here now. We can be competitive."
Well, OK, you’re forgiven if you figured at the time that Maddon was overrating his team.
Managers, after all, do tend to view their teams through rose-coloured glasses in spring training.
Yet there’s no question now that the Rays are for real and that what Maddon is seeing now through his horn-rimmed glasses cannot be refuted.
These guys really are good. Very good.
With a payroll considerably lower than any of their AL East counterparts – including the Blue Jays – the Rays are demonstrating that they have the pitching and the offence to qualify for the post-season.
Eric Hinske, formerly the Blue Jays’ third and first baseman, is turning out to be the top utility player in baseball. Dioner Navarro is the top-hitting catcher in baseball. Third baseman Evan Longoria is the best rookie in baseball. Outfielders Carl Crawford and Eric Upton are five-tool players who are potential superstars. And so on and so on.
A whole bunch of credit for the Rays’ success, though, is being heaped on their veteran closer, Troy Percival.
Percival, who turns 39 in August, missed the second half of the 2005 season and all of 2006 with a right-forearm injury before making a comeback with the St. Louis Cardinals last season.
Last November, he agreed to rejoin Maddon, his longtime buddy and former coach with the Angels. Percival expected his role to be about 40 per cent pitching and 60 per cent clubhouse presence for a young team that had, put kindly, severe chemistry issues in recent seasons.
Percival’s influence on his younger teammates has been substantial. General manager Andrew Friedman considers the 2008 Rays “Troy’s team. His contributions both on and off the field have been remarkable.”
Percival, however, disagrees. “In my mind, this is Carl Crawford’s locker room,” Percival said of the Rays’ 27-year-old left fielder, who has been with the club since 2002. “He’s been here the longest. He’s been fantastic. I didn’t know what to expect because I had heard this was a bad, bad clubhouse and he was never happy, but now I see him come in here happy, and that lifts the spirits of everybody else because he’s one of our superstars.”
Regardless of whose team it is, the Rays are soaring and Percival thinks he knows the primary reason.
Their starting rotation.
Here’s what Percival told The Sporting News about each of Tampa Bay’s young starters.
On left-hander Scott Kazmir: “There’s no secret about his stuff. From the left side, there’s not many better in the game. To me, right now he’s still a work in progress because he was on the D.L. for a while. He’ll get those pitch counts down and start getting into the seventh inning regularly soon enough.”
On right-hander James Shields: “He’s got one of the best changeups I’ve ever seen. He doesn’t ever want to come out of the game, and I like that. It reminds me of Chuck Finley back in the day. He wants to be out there in the ninth inning.”
On right-hander Matt Garza: “Probably of all of them, he has the most electric stuff—throwing 94 with heavy sink. Now he’s learning to throw strikes, and he’s going right after hitters. He’s not out there throwing 18 off-speed pitches every inning. He’s just using his fastball and pitching.”
On right-hander Edwin Jackson: “Just electric stuff. He’s got 96 in the bag if he wants it, maybe more, but I’m getting to sit back and watch him learn that 92 located is better than 97 all over the place. He’s pitching 92, 92 and then, bam—here comes the 97. He’s learning to locate, and that’s been fun to watch.”
On right-hander Andy Sonnanstine: “Sonny is so competitive when he’s out there. He doesn’t give in, and he throws all 18 pitches he’s got from whatever angle he’s throwing them from. It’s good to have a guy like that, to sit there and watch him battle at 87 or 88, locating and changing speeds.”
Perhaps the greatest challenge the Rays will face in their race against the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays in the AL East this season will be Percival himself.
Can he hold up all season?
If he does, this may well be entrenched in baseball history as one of those unforgettable dream seasons for a team that previously wallowed in abyss for an extraordinarily long time.