Sports Nut

The Smartest Team in Baseball

How the Rays beat the Red Sox.

Akinori Iwamura and Cliff Floyd of Tampa Bay

Over the next few days, you’re going to learn a lot more about the Tampa Bay Rays than you ever thought you’d need to know. Thank goodness they’re an unusually interesting bunch. Freakishly talented center fielder B.J. Upton, for instance, is only the second-best major leaguer to have played middle infield for the 1993 Virginia Blasters. Fifth outfielder Fernando Perez is a Columbia graduate with a taste for Howard Zinn. General manager Andrew Friedman, 31, was a Bear Stearns analyst before making a well-timed exit into baseball. And manager Joe Maddon has fashion-forward glasses and a taste for wine. Wacky!

For all their charming eccentricity, the Rays also happen to be really good at baseball. They beat out the New York Yankees for a playoff spot with a payroll one-fifth as big. They went into Fenway Park last week tied 1-1 in the American League Championship Series and kicked the Boston Red Sox around like dogs, outscoring the defending champs 29-5 over one stretch. And after the Red Sox made the greatest playoff comeback in at least 80 years in Game 5, winning a game they had essentially no mathematical chance of winning, the Rays still pulled it out, for reasons having nothing to do with Upton’s mohawk, all of which were on display in their Game 7 win on Sunday night.

What makes the Rays so good? Start with defense. The Rays ranked first in baseball in defensive efficiency this year, which measures how many balls in play they turn into outs. Jason Bartlett, a great-field/no-hit shortstop of a kind that’s been out of fashion for at least a decade, showed how they do it in the second inning, materializing from the ether behind second base to rob Mark Kotsay of a base hit. You won’t see ostentatious dives from the Rays, but you will see them in areas of the field they have no business being in. Bartlett, left fielder Carl Crawford, first baseman Carlos Pena, and second baseman Akinori Iwamura all rated among the top three in the league at their positions in making plays outside of their zones—that is, ranging beyond the space they’re supposed to cover to corral balls that would otherwise go for fits. With all those great fielders, the Rays play like they have 10 men on the field.

That hurts all the more for opposing hitters given that the Rays have so many hard throwers. Matt Garza, the ALCS most valuable player, mowed down the Red Sox in Game 7, striking out nine in seven innings. Ranked ninth in the league this year in average fastball speed, Garza was one of four Rays starters to rank in the league’s top 30. The hardest-throwing Ray of all is left-hander David Price, the No. 1 overall pick in last year’s draft. Price closed out the Red Sox with heat and brutal sliders, looking like the reincarnation of Steve Carlton. After Price’s performance, the only good news for the Phillies is that the Rays’ secret weapon is a secret no longer.

Defense and pitching are to baseball what transparency and accountability are to politics: Is there anyone who’s not in favor of them? Of course, there’s also virtue in hitting the living hell out of the ball. The main reason the Rays won is that they set an ALCS record for most home runs in a series, doing so against a fine Boston pitching staff. The Rays aren’t, from one angle, a team of power hitters; they have five everyday players who hit fewer than 10 home runs this year. On the other hand, they did hit 180 long balls this year, as many as the Yankees, and they have a surprising depth of power, with bench hitters and platoon guys like Ben Zobrist and Willy Aybar—who hit a crucial home run in Game 7 that turned a 2-1 lead into a 3-1 gap—up in the double digits. As Joe Torre said last week, the Rays have sneaky power.

A preference for pitching, defense, and the home run, the very strategy preached by crusty old-school manager Earl Weaver, doesn’t quite qualify the Rays as baseball avant-gardists. Nevertheless, one could argue that the Rays provide a necessary corrective to recent heresies. The 2006 World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals had all of one starter who threw harder than 90 mph; the 2004 Red Sox employed defensive butchers Mark Bellhorn and Manny Ramirez. But the Rays weren’t built as a reaction against the game’s fallen state.

The secret of the Rays’ success could be found on the mound at the end of Game 7. A veteran of five major league games coming into the playoffs, David Price came on in the eighth inning with his team up by two, the bases loaded, and J.D. Drew, hero of Game 5, at the plate. (No pressure, kid!) Price struck out Drew, set down three in a row after walking the leadoff man in the ninth, and ended up at the bottom of a big dog pile.

Bringing on a kid who’s pitched fewer innings in his career than Leon Cadore of the Brooklyn Robins did in one game in 1920 is nothing you’ll find in baseball’s infamous book. Nor is a fair amount of what the Rays do. After Game 5, everyone wanted to know exactly why Maddon had left in right-handed relievers Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler to face lefties Drew and David Ortiz; Maddon said in so many words that a good pitcher is a good pitcher, and that Balfour and Wheeler are his best guys, however things happened to work out. What’s the common bond here? Going with your best players—regardless of what hand they throw with or how many innings they’ve thrown in the big leagues—no matter if baseball orthodoxy would tell you otherwise. This shows an almost disturbing tendency toward common sense.

Look at the Rays on the field, and this strange reasonableness abounds. Ace pitcher Scott Kazmir and catcher Dioner Navarro were thought by many to be too small to succeed in the majors despite having great minor league numbers; the Rays decided to let them prove they couldn’t succeed, and lo and behold neither did. Right fielder Rocco Baldelli can’t play a full game because of a rare disease that keeps him from expending too much energy; the Rays play him as long as he can go and then swap in a caddy. Upton couldn’t handle shortstop in the minors, committing dozens of errors a year; the Rays shrugged and moved him to center, where he’s been brilliant. Pena was a solid first baseman with Detroit for years before somehow managing to wash out on both the Red Sox and Yankees in 2006; the Rays figured the accumulated weight of his career counted for more than one bad campaign, installed him as the starter, and watched him hit 77 home runs over the last two years.

All of this seems obvious right now, but that wasn’t always so. Somewhere in the Rays’ story, as befits the general manager’s background, there’s a best-selling business book waiting to be written. Call it If It Isn’t Common, Why Do They Call It Common Sense? It would sell a million.