Wednesday, October 22, 2008

9 = 108: The 2008 Tampa Bay Rays' Improbable Run to the World Series

I originally wrote this article for as the second of our two-part World Series preview, in which I looked at the upcoming series from the Tampa Bay perspective, while taking a look at how it might compare to past Fall Classics. I consider this to be the best piece I've written for that site so far, so I hope you enjoy.

Joe Maddon, whose Zen-like nature has drawn comparisons to the NBA's legendary Phil Jackson, came up with the slogan "9 = 8" as a motivational tool for his 2008 team. Maddon's curious mathematical equation is intended to mean 9 guys playing hard for 9 innings will equal one of 8 playoff spots. Well, the Rays have achieved that goal, and have extended it two steps further to a berth in the World Series. The worst-to-first story of the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays now reaches its final stage, as they look to become the first team to win a World Series the year after finishing with the worst record in baseball. If they do so, their 108 regular season-plus-playoff victories will be 42 better than last year's total.

A Fortuitous Injury

The 2007 Rays finished 66-96, 30 games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox. Still, the team that took the field to start 2008 didn't represent a major overhaul. Besides the addition of Troy Percival as closer, the most significant change was the trade of right fielder Delmon Young and shortstop Brendan Harris to the Minnesota Twins for starting pitcher Matt Garza and shortstop Jason Bartlett. B.J. Upton had already moved from second base to center field, in late 2007, so Akinori Iwamura made the switch from third base to second base. But, perhaps their season's most important change occurred as a result of injury. Willy Aybar won the third base job out of spring training, and went 6-for-20 with two doubles and a home run in 6 games until he was placed on the disabled list with a sore left hamstring on April 12. That same day, 22-year old Evan Longoria was called up from AAA Durham. The rest, as they say, is history.

It's likely that Longoria would have played his way onto the major league roster at some point this year, but due to his early season call-up, he would go on to have a season that will likely earn him Rookie of the Year honors. He was also arguably the team's regular season MVP, and when he hit home runs in his first two post-season at bats, he served notice that he was ready for prime time. Despite the injury, Aybar would prove to be an important role player upon his return, especially while filling in for Longoria for the month he was out with a fractured right wrist.

Of course, the story of Tampa Bay's surprising season is that everyone was waiting for the clock to strike midnight, and for their carriage to turn back into a pumpkin. After a sluggish start, they found themselves 8-11 on April 20, but a 19-10 month of May propelled them into first-place, one game ahead of the Red Sox. Then, after battling it out with the Sox for the AL East's top spot throughout June, a 7-game winning streak put them 5 games ahead on July 6. They immediately followed that up with a 7-game losing streak, though, which dropped them to a half game out at the all-star break. This slide was expected to be the beginning of their downfall, but from July 19 through the end of the season, the Rays either led or shared the division lead, clinching their first ever post-season berth on September 20.


The 1991 Atlanta Braves were the only other team to go from the worst record in baseball one year to the World Series the next. However, their quest to ascend from the absolute bottom rung to the top of the baseball world ended on Gene Larkin's 10th inning sacrifice fly in the game that cemented Jack Morris' reputation as his era's ultimate big-game pitcher.

The 1991 Braves had a few similarities to the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays. The Braves had a starting rotation anchored by three young studs, the 25-year old Tom Glavine, 24-year old John Smoltz, and Steve Avery, who went 18-8 at the tender age of 21. The Rays are led by the 26-year old James Shields, and two 24-year olds, Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza. Both bullpens entered the playoffs without their regular season leader in saves. While there's still a chance that Tampa Bay could activate Troy Percival for the World Series, the Braves were without Juan Berenguer after he broke his pitching arm while horsing around with his children.

That Braves team had six players with post-season experience, and four -- Terry Pendleton, Lonnie Smith, Alejandro Pena, and Charlie Leibrandt -- who had played fairly significant roles on teams that made it to the World Series. The Rays have less October experience, with Jason Bartlett, Trever Miller and Grant Balfour having previously played in the playoffs, and, unless Percival or Eric Hinske is activated, only Dan Wheeler (2 IP in 2005) and Cliff Floyd (3 pinch-hit AB in 1997) with World Series appearances under their belts.

However, the similarities end when comparing the opponents of the 1991 Braves and 2008 Rays. The 1991 Twins were four years removed from their prior World Series victory, and included four position players -- Greg Gagne, Kent Hrbek, Dan Gladden, and Kirby Puckett -- who were starters on both teams. The 2008 Philadelphia Phillies have only marginally more Series experience than the Rays do, with Pedro Feliz, So Taguchi, Eric Bruntlett and Brad Lidge having played in the Fall Classic.

Why the 2008 Rays are NOT the 1991 Braves

It has nothing to do with how the 2008 Rays and 1991 Braves compare to each other, but rather how this year's Rays stack up versus this year's Phillies. Both teams have strong and balanced lineups, which I would consider virtually equal, so the focus here is on the pitching staffs. But, of course, with an emphasis on how they match up against the hitters they'll face.

While Cole Hamels is the best starting pitcher from among the two staffs, the 1-2-3 of Kazmir, Shields and Garza gives the Rays a considerable edge. A lot has been made of the strong second half of Brett Myers, but a fact that has been overlooked is his 5.24 September ERA, and the 27 hits and 11 walks he's given up in 20 1/3 innings over his last four starts, including the post-season. Jamie Moyer was unimpressive in his first two post-season starts, but these struggles have been well documented, and with Matt Garza's recent success making it difficult to decide which of Tampa's big three is truly the staff ace, the starting rotation edge clearly goes to the Rays.

Another key aspect to this Series are the lefty vs. lefty match-ups. Neither Cole Hamels nor Jamie Moyer are as tough on lefties as Scott Kazmir is, and considering how important Chase Utley and Ryan Howard are to the Phillies lineup, this could lessen the Hamels vs. Kazmir advantage in Games 1 and 5. Add to this the significant designated hitter advantage the Rays will have due to the lack of right-handed options for the Phillies -- it appears Charlie Manuel is leaning towards backup catcher Chris Coste as DH vs. Kazmir -- and the Game 1 edge could swing towards the Rays. Considering that many folks are already calling the first game a must-win for the Phillies, this could be huge.

Bullpens are always a major discussion point when analyzing a World Series matchup. Ever since the Yankees won four World Series in five years with a bullpen built around Mariano Rivera, then failed to continue this dominance when the setup guys could no longer live up to the high standards set by Ramiro Mendoza, Mike Stanton and Jeff Nelson, there has been an increased emphasis on relief pitchers. It has been pointed out frequently, with no argument here, that the Phillies have the edge is this area. While the Rays have a strong group of setup relievers, their lack of a shutdown closer is what gives the Phillies an advantage. Brad Lidge -- his 2005 post-season struggles not withstanding -- is a dominant force to have to finish off games. David Price is certainly the Rays' wild card, but it would be hard to base a World Series prediction on the confidence that he will measure up to Lidge.

So, it comes down to the Rays' advantage in their starting rotation versus the Phillies' bullpen edge. Here are three reasons why the former wins out over the latter:

  • A strong bullpen is only as effective as its starting staff's ability to pitch into the 6th or 7th inning with a lead. The Rays' staff will do a better job of this than the Phillies' will.
  • Other than the ALCS Game 5 debacle, Maddon did an excellent job of managing his bullpen's matchups, and with three lefties available to handle Utley and Howard back-to-back, these decisions will be a little easier.
  • The Phillies are not the Red Sox, and "The Bank" is not Fenway.
9 = 108: while Maddon's formula is, of course, incorrect, despite the fact that a Michigan State math professor "proved"otherwise, this equation is mathematically accurate (well...sort of). 9 really does equal 108 (1 + 0 + 8), and it also equals 72 (7 + 2), the number of losses the Rays will end the season with after they defeat the Phillies in 7.

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