Starting Pitching at Root of Burgeoning Rays Juggernaut
You won't catch Joe Maddon doing that. The Rays are stacked with hitters up and down the lineup, and while Tampa's manager is properly appreciative, it's not like his team is a one-trick pony.
The Rays' 19-7 record is built on pitching, and lots of it. Tampa came into the week with the best team earned run average in the American League at 2.97, and the starting pitching has been particularly dominant with a collective 2.63 ERA.
"I can't say enough about the job the starters have done,'' Maddon said Tuesday with the Mariners on the docket. "We have the best run differential in the league, and it's not just because we score a lot of runs. We haven't given up a lot, either.''
The Rays' run differential is plus-70. For a bit of perspective, only three AL teams had a greater run differential than that for the entire 2009 season -- the Angels, the Yankees and the Red Sox -- and none of the three are particularly close to the Rays this year. In fact, the Angels and Red Sox both have actually allowed more runs than they've scored.
"Seventy runs up. And it's May 4,'' Seattle manager Don Wakamatsu said Tuesday in looking at the Rays. "That's just crazy. We had 85 wins last year, and we got outscored (by 19 runs).
"It just goes to show the quality of that club right there. They're the best team in the league right now.''
The record would certainly indicate that. The Rays have allowed the fewest runs through 26 games of any team (82) since the 2001 Red Sox (76).
"What you're seeing is a good young team that has played together for a few years now, one that has a lot of talent and one that knows what it takes to win,'' a veteran scout who has been following the Rays this season said. "There isn't much they can't do.''
The only thing that may be beyond the Rays' grasp is keeping the core of the team intact. As well as things are going, this may develop into a must-win year, because first baseman Carlos Pena and left fielder Carl Crawford are both free agents at the end of the year.
Keeping one, probably Pena, might be doable. Keeping both seems beyond the financial resources of Tampa Bay management. Still, those are issues for a different page on the 2010 calendar. For today, it's best to check out what the Rays have, not what they might lose.
Specifically, in pitchers James Shields, Matt Garza, Jeff Niemann, David Price and Wade Davis, they have five solid starters, none of whom is over 28 and all of whom are tied to the club through 2012 at least. As a group they are 15-3. Shields' ERA of 3.15 is the worst of the four -- and he's undefeated at 4-0 after beating Seattle Tuesday night.
It's all about maturity for the Tampa Bay pitchers. They finished sixth in the league last year in ERA and third in both walks and hits allowed. Building on that, the Rays come into every game this time around filled with the confidence that only success can breed.
Shields, the team's Opening Day starter, was consistently between 92-94 mph Tuesday, and had streaks of eight and 10 consecutive batters retired in succession to underscore his domination of the Mariners.
"The old man has to keep up with the young guys,'' Shields said with a smile. He is the oldest of the pack at 28 and has the most big-league experience, three-plus years coming into the season.
One result of the Rays' pitching domination is a 10-1 record on the road to start the season. That's a 180-degree switch from the way things usually happen for Tampa Bay.
"I think anyone would be surprised to be 10-1 on the road like this,'' Shields said, "especially given our history. But I'm not surprised given the kind of baseball we are playing right now.''