Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Best Postseason Win: Tampa Bay Rays

In terms of baseball history, the struggles of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were the smallest of potatoes. Yes, they were bad when they started out; so were most expansion teams. Yes, they had losing records for ten consecutive years, peaking at 70 wins during that stretch. Ask a fan of the Boston Braves, or St. Louis Browns, or the Phillies between the World Wars, or the College of Coaches Cubs, or even the Royals and Pirates from exactly the same time, how much sympathy is merited by that level of suffering.

Still, the Devil Rays were lousy, and with 96 losses in 2007, showed no signs of coming out of it any time soon. And the standards for expansion teams weren't as low as they once had been; the Diamondbacks, who'd also been created in 1998, won the World Series just three years later, and the 1993-born Marlins won two titles in their first eleven years of existence.

The '07 Rays are a fairly fascinating team in retrospect. Their lineup was actually not bad - or, more correctly, their offense was not bad. Their defense, on the other hand, was appalling. Defensive Efficiency Rating is (I believe) a Bill James statistic for team defense; it measures the percentage of balls in play converted into outs. In 2007, the AL average was .684 (meaning that if you put the ball in play against an AL team, you would expect to hit .316). The league-best Red Sox checked in at .704; the Mariners had the second-worst figure in the league at .672.

The Devil Rays? .652, 32 points below average and 20 points away from thirteenth place. The league hit .348 against them if you leave out strikeouts and homers... which is very bad. That was a big part of the reason that the Rays allowed 76 more runs than any other team in the league, almost half a run per game, and were a full run per game worse than league average.

Before the 2008 season, the Rays were officially rebranded, dropping the Devil from their name and switching from the sea-creature definition of Rays to the beam-of-light definition. More significantly, they managed to execute a remarkable overhaul of their team without actually changing too many players. Here's how it worked, broken down by defensive positions.

The Rays started the same players at catcher (Dioner Navarro), first base (Carlos Pena) and left field (Carl Crawford) as they had the year before. In 2007, Akinori Iwamura served as the regular third baseman, while second base was manned by a creature with one more head than Cerberus (BJ - now Melvin - Upton, Brendan Harris, Ty Wigginton, and Josh Wilson), but with far less defensive effectiveness than the famed guardian of the underworld. Harris, being stretched past his limits in manning second base for about 50 games, was also stretched much further in the half-season he spent at shortstop, with Wilson and Ben Zobrist faring little better.

The infield mess settled down considerably in 2008. Iwamura moved his competent glove from third to second, and trade acquisition Jason Bartlett took over shortstop, where he played... not spectacularly, but at least an an acceptable major league level, something the Rays had sorely lacked in the middle infield a year earlier. And a month into the season, they called up the wonderful Evan Longoria to take over third.

The outfield transition had actually begun the year before, as the aforementioned Upton had moved from second base (where he was dreadful) to center field (where he was excellent), displacing a terrifying agglomeration of Elijah Dukes, Rocco Baldelli, and amazingly, Delmon Young. (I understand Carl Crawford is a tremendous left fielder, but I don't know how you justify keeping him there and playing Delmon Young in center instead.) Upton took over center full-time in 2008, and the combination of Young and Jonny Gomes in right was replaced almost entirely by a significantly superior Gabe Gross/Eric Hinske platoon.

As a result of that reshuffling and replacement, the Rays went from the worst DER in the AL to the best (.708) in one season. Unsurprisingly, this helped their pitchers considerably - enough to turn the league's worst run-prevention unit into its second-best, and thereby propelling Tampa to 97 wins and the AL East title.

One round of postseason later, the Rays would face the team they had narrowly bested in the division, leading to our entry here. The selection is 2008 ALCS Game 2: Rays 9, Red Sox 8 (11), which began with a pitching matchup of two fairly mercurial but highly noteworthy talents - Boston's Josh Beckett and Tampa's Scott Kazmir.

The Sox started things off with a two-out rally in the top of the first, as David Ortiz walked, Kevin Youkilis singled, and Jason Bay doubled them both home. The Rays responded in kind in the bottom of the inning when Carlos Pena doubled with two away and Evan Longoria followed with a game-tying homer. The teams managed only a single between them in the second, but the scoring picked up again in the third, as Dustin Pedroia homered in the top of the inning. Tampa replied again in the home half, with BJ Upton going deep to tie it; they then took their first lead on a Longoria double and a Carl Crawford single.

Kazmir worked around a Coco Crisp double in the top of the fourth, and Cliff Floyd homered in the bottom of the inning to push the lead to 5-3. But Pedroia led off the fifth with a homer, and one out later, Youkilis went long as well, evening the score at 5. Kazmir was quickly yanked for Grant Balfour, and Bay greeted the reliever with a longball of his own, putting the Sox back in front. After a pair of walks, Balfour was quickly supplanted by JP Howell, who retired the next two hitters to end the inning.

Boston's lead proved to be just as short-lived as any other advantage in this game. With one out in the home fifth, Upton walked and stole second. Pena singled Upton around to tie the score, and Longoria doubled to plate Pena and chase Beckett from the mound. Javier Lopez relieved and allowed an RBI single to Crawford, making it an 8-6 game; Manny Delcarmen then took over and ended the inning without further incident.

Howell set down two of the first three Red Sox hitters in the sixth, with a walk to Pedroia the only exception. Chad Bradford then took over, and promptly allowed singles to Youkilis and Bay that cut the Tampa Bay lead in half. Delcarmen worked around a Jason Bartlett single in the bottom of the sixth, and Bradford did the same with a hit from Crisp in the top of the seventh. Hideki Okajima then retired the Rays in order, giving the game three consecutive scoreless half-innings for the first time.

Naturally, the miniature drought didn't last too long. Pedroia led off the eighth with a single, chasing Bradford. Lefty specialist Trever Miller walked Ortiz and was replaced by Dan Wheeler. Wheeler drew a double play ball from Youkilis, moving Pedroia to third, and then uncorked a wild pitch that allowed the Boston second baseman to scamper home with the tying run.

Okajima was flawless in the home eighth; Wheeler allowed a Crisp double in the ninth, but nothing else, and Justin Masterson gave up only an Akinori Iwamura single in the bottom of the inning before Jonathan Papelbon was summoned for the last out, forcing extra innings.

Wheeler and Papelbon exchanged 1-2-3 tenths, and Wheeler was pulled after a one-out walk in the top of the eleventh. David Price, a 22-year-old lefty who had been called up in September, took over and issued a walk of his own, then retired the next two hitters to escape. Mike Timlin relieved in the bottom of the eleventh and walked both Navarro and Ben Zobrist. Bartlett grounded out to advance the runners, Iwamura was intentionally walked to load the bases, and Upton followed with a game-ending sacrifice fly.

How do you go 2 for 11 with runners in scoring position and still score eight runs? The obvious answer (and the one the Red Sox used) is to hit a bunch of homers (four), and it also helps to score on a wild pitch. The Rays, meanwhile, had only six at bats with RISP, but converted on four of them with hits, and hit three homers of their own.

The hitting in key spots was fairly tangential to the excellence of this contest, however, which is mostly captured in the lead changes: 2-0, 2-2, 3-2, 5-3, 6-5, 8-6, 8-8, 9-8 in extras. That's five instances of a team coming from behind to tie or take the lead, plus two more times that a team that just blew a lead retaking it from a tie. And that's easily enough to push this one into the top 50 postseason games of all time.

The Rays would go on to beat the Red Sox in seven games, then lost the World Series to the Phillies in five. They have remained at least reasonably competitive ever since, but have not yet reached another LCS. Their honorable mention section (which includes one game) comes from a more recent season; in 2013 ALDS Game 3, also against the Red Sox, the game went into the seventh tied. The Rays left the go-ahead run at second in the home seventh, as did Boston in the top of the eighth. Tampa pushed a run across in the bottom of the eighth and left two more in scoring position; Boston retied it in the ninth and left the go-ahead run at third, and the Rays sealed it in the bottom of the inning on a walkoff homer by the unspectacular Jose Lobaton off of Koji Uehara, who had been unhittable all year.

Outside of that, the Rays have no other games in the top 350. The same cannot be said of their state-mates, the Marlins, who we'll be visiting with next time.

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