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'Relentless' Rays rolling toward World Series

@RichardJustice
October 14, 2020

Now a trip to the World Series is right there for the Tampa Bay Rays, one win away after another wildly entertaining night of breathtaking defense and spectacularly good pitching got them to the threshold of something every Major League player dreams of.

Now a trip to the World Series is right there for the Tampa Bay Rays, one win away after another wildly entertaining night of breathtaking defense and spectacularly good pitching got them to the threshold of something every Major League player dreams of.

Game Date Result Highlights
Gm 1 Oct. 11 TB 2, HOU 1 Watch
Gm 2 Oct. 12 TB 4, HOU 2 Watch
Gm 3 Oct. 13 TB 5, HOU 2 Watch
Gm 4 Oct. 14 HOU 4, TB 3 Watch
Gm 5 Oct. 15 HOU 4, TB 3 Watch
Gm 6 Oct. 16 HOU 7, TB 4 Watch
Gm 7 Oct. 17 TB 4, HOU 2 Watch

That’s what a 5-2 victory over the Astros in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series on Tuesday brought to Tampa Bay. Up 3-0 in the best-of-seven series, the Rays will get their first crack at a clincher in Game 4 at Petco Park in San Diego on Wednesday.

“It’s an amazing feeling, it really is,” Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said. “I knew this group was capable of getting to this point. I didn't have one doubt in my mind. I'm so proud to be a part of this.”

To watch the Rays roll through these playoffs -- they’re 8-2 -- is to see a team that seems to be able to will itself to do whatever is needed. On Tuesday, it was a familiar formula as Tampa Bay outfielders Hunter Renfroe and Kiermaier put on a defensive clinic.

This is part of what makes the Rays the Rays. They were one of the earlier proponents of a run saved being as valuable as a run produced. This season, Tampa Bay's outfielders were tied for fourth in Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric with six and tied for first in Defensive Runs Saved with 19.

Pitching and defense, right? The Rays got five innings from right-hander Ryan Yarbrough and the final four from five relievers, all of whom probably would be eighth- and ninth-inning specialists on other teams.

The Rays got four of their eight hits -- along with two hit batsmen -- in a five-run sixth-inning rally that turned a 1-0 Astros lead into a 5-1 advantage for Tampa Bay.

If Tampa Bay wins the clincher, it’ll be the franchise’s second World Series appearance, the first coming in 2008 three years after Stuart Sternberg purchased control of the club and put baseball’s smartest and most efficient front office into place.

Sternberg is the connective tissue running through the two teams. His taking over the Rays in 2005 began one of the great turnarounds in baseball history, from one of the least successful franchises to one of the best.

Back then, Andrew Friedman, who is now president of Dodgers baseball operations, prided himself on constructing an organization that was able to look around corners and see value in players others might have missed.

That’s still true as one of his protégés, Erik Neander, has hired one of the best two or three managers in the game in Kevin Cash and built a roster largely out of trades for players that have gotten better in Tampa Bay’s data-driven organization.

Look at the list of the players acquired: shortstop Willy Adames, third baseman Joey Wendle and pitchers Pete Fairbanks, Nick Anderson, Yarbrough and Tyler Glasnow.

The Rays saw something in all of them that others did not. One of those is right-hander John Curtiss, who’d pitched for the Angels and Twins before being signed by the Rays last spring.

Asked what secret the Rays had unlocked in him, he said, “They told me they thought I was pretty good. Coming from them, that means something.”

The Rays surely adjusted some of his mechanics and pitch usage, but Tampa Bay has reinvented enough players that being acquired by them has come to be a boost of confidence in its own right.

The Rays were 21-9 against .500 or better teams, best in the Majors, and trailed in 40 of 60 games with 20 come-from-behind victories, most in the AL.

Despite winning the AL East by seven games, this season tested the organization on multiple levels. Fifteen players had 16 stints on the injured list, including three of five projected starters and seven projected members of the bullpen. Between Aug. 9 and Sept. 1, their injured list grew from four to 13 players.

During that time, they had the best record in the Majors (18-4). Asked to describe what it would be like to play his own team, Cash said: “Hopefully, it’s relentless as far as the constant pitching that comes and the defense.

“You know, it can wear you down there. I think that we show that we can do it in all facets of the game.”

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.