It’s Always Sunny in Tampa St. Petersburg

Jose Molina, Alex CobbIt all happened in a flash. Alex Cobb fired a high, two-strike fastball to Yoenis Cespedes. The pitch might’ve been a ball, but Jose Molina subtly guided it back into the strike zone, enough to lure home-plate umpire Vic Carapazza into a game-ending strike-three call. Cobb’s four rotation mates ran to the mound to greet him with a group body-bump, a move usually reserved for outfielders. They leaped, connected … and knocked Cobb on his ass.

That’s the Rays’ entire 2012 season, right there, in 15 seconds. Tampa Bay’s biggest strength is its obscene pitching depth, evidenced by this spring’s presumptive number-six or number-seven starter (Cobb) tossing the team’s third complete-game shutout of the season. The man doing the catching can’t hit a lick, but he might be the best in the business at framing borderline pitches for called strikes, making already successful Rays pitchers look even better and becoming a giant, $1.8 million bargain for a team that makes its living finding refurbished Porsches in the junkyard. As for the Rays nearly putting Cobb in traction mere seconds after his first career shutout? Typical goofery from a team that does everything from serving ice cream to teammates in the middle of a game to pieing its manager (John McGraw just rolled over in his grave, and punched the poor stiff next to him).

The end result is a team on fire. The Rays are now 16-5 in August, 14-3 since Evan Longoria returned to the lineup, and 7-1 since having a perfect game thrown against them for the 427th time in franchise history. Thirty-six days ago, they stood 10½ games behind the seemingly uncatchable Yankees, trailing several wild-card contenders. Today, they’re just 2½ games behind New York, and 2½ ahead of their nearest wild-card competitors.

The season looked a lot less rosy just a few weeks ago. Tampa Bay stormed to a 15-8 start in April, led by Longoria’s potent bat. The All-Star third baseman hit .329/.433/.561 in that opening month, while playing his usual excellent defense. The pitching staff fared well, but it was a balanced team getting strong performances from every corner of the roster that led the AL East at month’s end.

With Longoria out, things started to unravel. Multiple players performed well below offensive expectations, B.J. Upton, Desmond Jennings, Carlos Pena, and Sean Rodriguez the chief offenders. We’d seen Rays hitters go through long stretches with flaccid bats. Far more distressing was the sudden unraveling of their defense. Joe Maddon loves to use players at multiple positions, leveraging the versatility of his most flexible assets. But those position shifts depend heavily on a few defensive pillars, none more important than Longoria. With Longoria out, the team that set a record for biggest year-to-year improvement during its worst-to-first 2008 season, the club that consistently ranked at or near the top of the league defensively by advanced metrics over the past four years, suddenly couldn’t even catch a cold. When you can’t hit and you can’t field, you’re not going to win a lot. Often-spectacular pitching was all that prevented the Rays from losing more than 44 of the 85 games Longoria missed with his hamstring injury.

Cobb’s rise — even after accounting for an eight-run shellacking in his previous start at Anaheim — highlights the formidable strength and depth of Tampa Bay’s rotation. Coming into spring training, Cobb trailed David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Jeff Niemann, Moore, and possibly Wade Davis on the team’s starting pitching depth chart. Now he’s tossed a complete-game shutout against a top wild-card contender, with 30 strikeouts, five walks, and a 3.18 ERA in his past six starts. After a rough start to the season, James Shields owns a 2.15 ERA in his past five starts, with 34 strikeouts and just three walks. Matt Moore overcame his own slow start to post a 1.38 ERA and an opponents’ OPS of .551 in his past six outings. Jeremy Hellickson’s yielded either zero or one run in four of his past six starts. And David Price has been nearly unhittable all year, leading the league in wins and ERA and emerging as a top Cy Young candidate. Per DRaysBay’s Jason Collette, Rays starters now own a collective ERA of 2.62 since the All-Star break, with 251 innings pitched, 229 strikeouts, and just 195 hits, 65 walks, and 18 homers allowed. Only one of those starters, Shields, is over 26 years old; in April, Shields finally snapped a streak of 764 straight Rays games started by pitchers under 30. Those five starters will make a total of $14.4 million in base salary this year. Fifteen different starters, as well as Mariano Rivera, will make more than the entire Rays rotation combined.

One criticism sometimes leveled against the Rays and their recent success is the boatload of high draft picks they collected when they were awful. Without that crutch, they wouldn’t be nearly as good, the charge goes. Tampa Bay has in fact accumulated a bunch of top-10, even top-five picks in its relatively brief franchise history. But only four, Price, Longoria, Niemann, and Upton, have made significant contributions to the Rays’ success since 2008. That’s a sizable “only,” of course: Price and Longoria are the two best players the Rays have, one seemingly poised to become a perennial Cy Young candidate, the other one of the best all-around players in the game and an MVP threat when healthy. Not to mention the success Tampa Bay had flipping another high pick, Delmon Young, to Minnesota for Matt Garza and Jason Bartlett, a deal that’s still paying dividends even with Garza and Bartlett both long gone.

But overstating the importance of those players does a disservice to the many others who comprise the team with the sixth-best record in baseball this year, and also the sixth-lowest payroll. The Rays picked Moore in the eighth round of the 2007 draft, Shields in the 16th round of the 2000 draft. Among position players, Jennings was a 10th-round pick in 2006. Ben Zobrist was a no-name utility infielder acquired six years ago in a deadline trade who blossomed into one of baseball’s most underrated stars. By the time Carlos Pena arrived in Tampa Bay’s 2007 spring training camp, he’d been rejected by multiple teams, most infamously being the guy who got shipped out of Oakland because Brad Pitt had a hard-on for Chris Pratt. In fact, the D-Rays cut Pena that spring training, before he’d played a single meaningful game for the team. Just a few hours after Pena got the word, would-be starting first baseman Greg Norton suffered an injury, prompting D-Rays brass to run to the phone and invite Pena back. Given a second chance, Pena seized the starting first baseman’s job that year … and hit 46 f’ing home runs.

Nowhere have the Rays been more aggressive or more successful in finding scrap-heap gold than with their bullpen. When the Rays signed Kyle Farnsworth to a one-year deal with a club option after the 2010 season, Yankees fans chortled derisively, remembering the arsonist who couldn’t get anyone out for much of his tenure in the Bronx. But Farnsworth had evolved since then, developing a great cutter and refining his other pitches; he was one of the best closers in baseball last year, while getting paid just $3.25 million. J.P. Howell was once a first-round pick who excited scouts as a starting-pitching prospect. But he was awful in Kansas City, prompting the Royals to trade him to Tampa Bay for Joey Gathright. Howell was one of the most dominant relievers in the game in 2008 and 2009, got hurt and missed most of the next two seasons, then reemerged as a lights-out setup man this year who recently broke a club record for most consecutive scoreless innings; Gathright’s claim to fame was his impressive ability to jump over cars … he never could hit. Fernando Rodney showed decent raw stuff for the first nine years of his career with the Tigers and Angels. But he couldn’t harness it, finally walking 28 batters in 32 innings in 2011, a season so ugly that you wondered if he’d ever pitch again in the big leagues. When the Rays signed him to a one-year, $2 million deal with a club option, even that modest sum seemed like a huge overpay, given the criminal lack of command he’d shown in Anaheim. The Rays had Rodney adjust where he stands on the mound, and presto, they got a pitcher who’s suddenly performing like vintage Mariano Rivera.

The Rays’ stacked pitching staff, the return of Longoria, and contributions from legions of rejects and second-chance guys have Tampa Bay pointed toward a possible fourth playoff berth in five years, an incredible achievement given the perennial strength of the AL East and the Rays’ consistently tiny payroll. Yet the team ranks dead last in the majors in attendance, at a shade over 20,000 a game. As it has in the past, the Rays’ attendance has become a bigger story than it should be. It’s trolling fodder for those who choose to vilify a region and a fan base they know little about, but also a source of legitimate concern for some of baseball’s most respected figures, who admire the team’s winning ways and wish more people would show up to appreciate those wins in person.

I’ve documented the sources of those attendance struggles at length already: The Rays play in one of baseball’s oldest stadiums, but one that obviously lacks the charm of a Wrigley or a Fenway; the Tampa Bay region’s trying to tunnel out from one of the most aggressive local recessions in the nation; the area’s rife with transplants from all over the country, and doesn’t yet have enough history for parents to foster new generations of Rays fans; and fewer people live within a 30-minute drive of poorly located Tropicana Field than any other major league ballpark. These issues aren’t going away anytime soon, and trying to shame fans into showing up isn’t going to help. A new, better-located stadium would likely boost attendance. But finding the right location, and especially the money to build that new park, will require jumping over a huge number of political and financial hurdles.

In the meantime, the Rays continue to generate profits, win games, and awkwardly topple each other onto the turf during celebrations. We’ve seen it before. And as long as the team’s brain trust remains intact, there’s a strong chance we’ll see it again.

Filed Under: MLB, Tampa Bay Rays

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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