Rays ready for another run at ultimate goal

October 6th, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG -- So far, the Rays have accomplished every goal they set for themselves back in Spring Training.

They’ve returned to the postseason for the third straight year. They won the American League East for a second consecutive season. They clinched home-field advantage through the AL playoffs. They won 100 games, which became a more realistic achievement in their eyes as they entered the final month of the season, to become the most successful regular-season team in Tampa Bay history.

But they have one more goal, their ultimate objective and another franchise first: winning the World Series.

“This is a magnificent team,” outfielder said Sunday through interpreter Manny Navarro. “We went out there and came out to be the best team in the American League, and now our goal is to go out there and win the World Series.”

The Rays fell just short in last year’s Fall Classic, losing to the Dodgers in six games. It was a step further than their previous trip to the World Series, as the 2008 AL champions only won once. And it continued the club’s steady progression from 90-game winners in 2018 to a first-round fall in ’19 to AL champions a year ago.

Now, the only remaining goal for the Rays is to take the final step. Championships have become the expectations in the Tampa Bay area lately, thanks to the Stanley Cup-winning Lightning and Super Bowl-winning Buccaneers. What will it take for the Rays to join them this year?

How do they advance out of the ALDS against the Red Sox?

A lot like they advanced through the best regular season in both franchise history and the AL.

The Rays have shown they can win games in a variety of ways, no matter the opponent, and that versatility should serve them well in the postseason.

In a short series with built-in off-days, manager Kevin Cash can be as aggressive as he wants to be with his pitching staff. That’ll bode well for a young rotation featuring , and , as well as their deep and dynamic bullpen. Tampa Bay does not adhere to traditional methods of bullpen usage, so Cash could very well turn to a top relief arm like or early on, then figure it out based on matchups and leverage as the game unfolds.

The Rays’ defense is also a strength, especially in the outfield. At any given point, they can put together an alignment with three true center fielders: , and . Their infield is seemingly always well-positioned to get outs on balls in play, and they have a strong veteran behind the plate in Mike Zunino. As long as the pitching staff isn’t plagued by home runs or beating itself with walks, they have to like their chances to win the run-prevention game.

The real separator for this year’s Tampa Bay team is the lineup. The Rays had the highest-scoring offense in franchise history by a significant margin, a group that can beat opponents in several facets. They have plenty of power; , Zunino, and Arozarena all reached 20 home runs, and six others hit at least 10. They work tough at-bats and get on base, with no better examples than , and, of course, rookie phenom . And they’ve shown a remarkable ability to score late in games, getting the best of opponents’ bullpens from the seventh inning on.

They should also benefit from having home-field advantage. Despite their well-documented low attendance, Tropicana Field can get as loud and rowdy as anywhere else in the playoffs; if you need proof, look back at their home games against the Astros in the 2019 ALDS. But the greater benefit in that regard might be on the mound, as they posted a 2.93 ERA as a team at The Trop, about a run and a half better than their road ERA.

What does the blueprint for a championship run look like?

A lot like last year, but with a better finish.

The Rays need their starters to be competitive, keeping games close. They need their relievers to do what they did all season. They need to play their brand of reliable and often spectacular defense. Most of all, they need their lineup to maintain its regular-season momentum.

Just think how the 2020 World Series might have unfolded differently, for instance, if the Rays’ lineup had offered more than a heaping helping of Arozarena, some big hits from Kiermaier, one flash of hope from Lowe and an incredibly timely Game 4 knock by Phillips.

This group is capable of more. Lowe will be the first to admit a hot streak can end at a moment’s notice, but it’s hard not to see a better postseason ahead for him. Meadows is healthy, unlike last season, and he’s shown a knack for clutch hits. Zunino is going to rack up his fair share of strikeouts, but he’s committed to an approach that helped him hit 33 homers during the regular season. Kiermaier found a plan that clicked into place in the second half, too.

And Arozarena? Well, we’ve seen what he can do when he’s hot.

The biggest difference-makers, though, might be the club’s youngest and oldest players: the 20-year-old Franco and the 41-year-old . Together, they can carry the Rays’ lineup.

Would anyone be surprised if Franco steals the October spotlight the way Arozarena did last year? The switch-hitting shortstop reached the Majors with impossibly high expectations and, after a few up-and-down weeks, met them. He’ll occupy an important spot in the top third of the Rays’ lineup.

Cruz has been here before, and his postseason track record -- including a .288/.360/.659 slash line, 17 homers and 37 RBIs in 46 career games -- speaks for itself. He’s accomplished so much in his 17-year career, and now, he has another shot to play for the championship that eluded him a decade ago with Texas.

What is one reason for concern?

Trying to find a 100-win team’s flaws feels like nitpicking. As much as anything, it feels like setting yourself up for failure after this season. The Rays faced their share of adversity, much of it caused by significant injuries to their pitching staff, yet they always seemed to find an answer.

That could very well turn out to be the case here, too. The most commonly cited knock on the Rays heading into the playoffs will likely be that their starting pitching is untested, unproven and inexperienced.

It’s a valid point. There is no Charlie Morton on this staff, no horse with a big-game reputation. McClanahan and Baz are rookies, Rasmussen only became a big league starter in August, and their other options didn’t exactly dominate the last six months.

But there is a ton of talent. McClanahan has a four-pitch mix and elite velocity from the left side, and inexperience hardly seems like an issue considering he made his Major League debut on the playoff stage last year. Rasmussen has been automatic for five innings and a handful of hits every time out, and he’s as cool as they come on the mound. Combine the two and you get Baz, who has all the front-line stuff in the world along with a remarkable sense of poise for his age -- “a Charlie heartbeat,” as pitching coach Kyle Snyder said.

“I'll still take talent over experience,” Snyder said.