2011 has been a story of resiliency for the Tampa Bay Rays thus far. They opened the season losing 6 straight games and dropping their first three series (BAL, LAA, CHW). To compound the defeats, they also lost their star third baseman, Evan Longoria, who went down with an injury in the second game of the year. Longoria was lost for virtually the entire month of April (in fact made his return to the lineup exactly one month after he was placed on the disabled list) going 1-4 in his return to the lineup on May 3rd with two strikeouts.
During the month-long stint that the Rays were without their main offensive spark plug, things didn’t get any easier. Through the first two series (Orioles and Angels), the two “key” offensive free agent replacements brought for Carl Crawford – Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon – had combined for just two hits in 22 at-bats. In the second game of the series against the Angels, Damon went 0-4 with a strikeout while Ramirez popped out pinch-hitting in the 8th inning. That would be Manny’s final swing as a Tampa Bay Ray – as he abruptly left the team the next day for a “personal matter.” Ramirez announced his retirement two days later on April 8thamid rumors of PED usage that would have shelved him for the season.
Now, to a Rays fan this might seem like too much going wrong all at once but April 8th turned out to be quite an interesting day in retrospect. Despite missing their best offensive weapon due to injury and losing their primary free agent offensive acquisition to retirement, the players in the clubhouse must have decided it was time to embrace the idea of change.
Without a doubt, this 2011 Rays roster looks worlds different than the team that won 96 games in 2010 and sported one of the more potent offenses and bullpens in the league. The key pieces of the 2010 puzzle that were lost during the off-season included an emerging, promising young starter (Garza), lock-down closer (Soriano) and set-up men (Balfour, Benoit, Wheeler, Qualls), first baseman (Pena), shortstop (Bartlett), and left fielder (Crawford). That’s not even the entire list, but those are the marquee names…and quite a few in case you lost count! Few teams have the ability to lose so much of their core without also suffering in the standings. Before the season started and indeed quickly after the season began it would have been difficult to carry lofty expectations for this season going forward. Losing Longoria and early seasons bad luck simply increased those odds.
Flashbacks aside, let’s come back to April 8th and talk about what this day had in store for the Rays. Here’s the irony of it all – even without Longoria, and with Ramirez gone, they managed to win their first game of the 2011 season with style and dramatic flair, scoring 9 runs in the process (which alone surpassed the total number of runs they had scored previously). Trailing 7-4 to the White Sox in the 9th inning, the Rays put together an improbable comeback – one in which many new faces took part. Newcomer Sam Fuld (journeyman OF who arrived in the Matt Garza trade from the Cubs) batted in a run to begin the rally. Fuld was later singled in by B. J. Upton, after Johnny Damon had reached base on an error by Juan Pierre in left field. The Rays then trailed by one run, 7-6, when Dan Johnson (Pena’s replacement at 1B) came up to bat. Johnson promptly took Chicago’s then-closer Matt Thornton deep with a three-run shot for the Rays their first lead of the game. This proved to be the deciding factor in the Rays first victory of the season. Kyle Farnsworth (another off-season acquisition brought in to replace Rafael Soriano as the team’s closer) successfully navigated the bottom half of the inning without incident to secure the 9-7 Tampa Bay win.
A few things about that game provide some solid indications as to how we can characterize this revamped Tampa Bay Rays group:
Resiliency. Even though he surrendered 5 earned runs, starter James Shields managed to fight through 6 IP and save the bullpen some work. Rays offense began finding chinks in the White Sox’ armor, scoring twice in the top half of the 6th inning, once more the 7th, and then finished off the comeback with a monster 9th inning explosion. When the Chicago defense made two errors in the 9th inning, the Rays took full advantage and converted both into runs. The team never gave up, despite trailing until the final inning of a still winless on the season. Doing this in a hostile setting and against odds has quickly become a trademark of the new (and improved?) Tampa Bay Rays.
With all that to say about the team after just looking at the first few games of the season, now let’s take a look and see exactly how 2011 is stacking up against 2010 for Tampa Bay.
C—(‘10) Jason Jaso—–(‘11) Jason Jaso
1B—(’10) Carlos Pena—–(’11) Casey Kotchman/Dan Johnson
2B—(’10) Sean Rodriguez—–(’11) Ben Zobrist
3B—(’10) Evan Longoria—–(’11) Evan Longoria
SS—(’10) Jason Bartlett—–(’11) Reid Brignac
LF—(’10) Carl Crawford—–(’11) Sam Fuld
CF—(’10) B. J. Upton—–(’11) B. J. Upton
RF—(’10) Ben Zobrist—–(’11) Matt Joyce
DH—(’10) Pat Burrell—–(’11) Johnny Damon
Ace—(’10) James Shields—–(’11) David Price
Two—(’10) Matt Garza—–(’11) James Shields
Three—(’10) David Price—–(’11) Wade Davis*
Four—(’10) Jeff Niemann—–(’11) Jeremy Hellickson*
Five—(’10) Wade Davis—–(’11) Andy Sonnanstine*
[*Due to an injury to Jeff Niemann, Davis and Hellickson both moved up one spot, with Andy Sonnanstine occupying the fifth spot in the rotation until Niemann’s return from the disabled list.]
Closer—(’10) Rafael Soriano—–(’11) Kyle Farnsworth
Setup—(’10) Joaquin Benoit—–(’11) Joel Peralta
Notable(s)—(’10) G. Balfour/D. Wheeler/R. Choate/C. Qualls—–(’11) A. Russell/J. Cruz/C. Ramos**
[**J. P. Howell is currently on rehab assignment coming back from the disabled list, but he will resume his prominent role within the Rays’ bullpen upon his return to health.]
Through the first 37 games of last season, the Rays’ record stood at 26-11 – which would be four games better than they’ve done so far this year (22-15). Given the adversity this 2011 team has already dealt with, being just a few games off of a 96-win pace is a solid effort. Combine that with the early season struggles of the Red Sox and the erratic play of the Yankees and there certainly is hope.
This year’s squad has done an extremely admirable job answering most, if not all of these questions surrounding it due to the roster attrition they suffered. The bullpen was probably hardest hit losing a premier closer and top notch setup guys. Kyle Farnsworth was brought in with the hope that he could recapture some of the form he’d flashed in recent years, and so far he’s been great at the end of games, converting on 7 of 8 save opportunities and sporting an ERA of 1.35. The bullpen as a unit has converted 78% of its save chances, which is actually slightly better than their conversion rate last year (76%). In addition to the bullpen, a lot of the team’s success has come from its starters. The front three of the rotation – Price, Shields, and Davis – have combined for 13 wins, 17 quality starts, and ERA’s all below 3.13. Altogether, the Tampa Bay Rays sports the league’s 6th best ERA (3.25), 4th best WHIP (1.20), and 3rd best BAA (.233).
While this may not be the most potent lineup penciled in on a daily basis in recent years, the defense and pitching have both been huge contributing factors in the success that has them atop the AL East as we approach the middle of May. And the offense hasn’t been as bad as people probably thought it would be, especially after missing Longoria for a month and losing Manny Ramirez for good. There were quite a few holes to fill, but the surprising play of journeyman-newcomer Sam Fuld, a (monster) bounce-back year from Ben Zobrist, and the emergence of Matt Joyce have done more than enough to provide offensive sparks when needed. Early on the offense struggled to produce, but since then it’s picked up to a pace that ranks 8th best in the league at 4.88 runs per game. Behind good hitting, great pitching, and an even more superb defense behind it all (that’s committed the second fewest errors so far), this is looking more and more like the kind of team we all got used to watching as they rolled to 96 wins last year.
Fasten your seat belts and keep your belongings close – this might be a bumpy ride – but I think that the genius of Joe Maddon remains more than capable of turning water into wine, let alone this Rays squad into another post-season contender and a force to be reckoned with the American League East.
About the Author
Written by Nick Blanchard
I am a huge sports fan, as well as a lifetime athlete in a multitude of different athletic ventures. I used to do a little bit of everything but now the only one I participate in regularly is post-college lacrosse. I'm an English major, finishing up my undergraduate education in Upstate NY, and after that I'm hoping to get into sports writing as a career.