To watch the 2020 American League champions play is to understand what perfection looks like. This isn’t to say the Tampa Bay Rays are perfect, and that’s part of what makes them special.
They’re hitting barely .200 as a team this postseason, and they are scoring a little over four runs per game. They’ve won playoff games by scores of 2-1 (twice), 3-1 and 4-2. Here’s the beauty of that secret sauce: The Rays understand who they are and how they have to do things.
Tampa Bay is 9-5 this postseason and 18-7 since Sept. 17 because its pitching and defense are so good that nothing else matters. Facing the Dodgers in the World Series, here are seven reasons the Rays are likely to win a championship:
1. Their starting pitchers are rested and really good
The Rays invented the concept of the opener in 2018. That’s the practice of using a reliever for a few hitters at the beginning of a game, then bringing in a traditional starter and allowing him to face the heart of the lineup one fewer time. The Rays used an opener seven times in 2020, including four times in the last 13 regular-season games. They went 6-1 in those games.
2. They have MLB’s best and deepest bullpen
Manager Kevin Cash trusts virtually all of his relievers to close games. Twelve of them got saves during the regular season, and a 13th, Pete Fairbanks, has two of Tampa Bay’s five saves this postseason. In Game 5 of the AL Division Series, Nick Anderson got the save after warming up briefly in the third inning. That depth means Cash can start playing matchup games at almost any point and that starters are never overworked. No Rays pitcher worked enough innings to qualify for the ERA title.
“They have guys with elite stuff, but different kinds of stuff,” said Astros third baseman Alex Bregman. “They’re constantly on the attack. They know what they do well, and they execute.”
3. They play spectacularly good defense
Tampa Bay’s defense might have been an unknown quantity entering the playoffs, but a string of highlight-reel plays has put another strength on display.
4. Because of the 'greatest player on the planet'
We’ve watched great players will their teams to championships before. David Ortiz is one recent example. Juan Soto is another. That may be what 25-year-old rookie Randy Arozarena represents to the Rays.
When the Rays called Arozarena up on Aug. 30, Adames was told: “We just added the best player at the Trade Deadline.”
Adames wasn’t sure he believed that.
That was then. Now?
"He's got to be the greatest player on the planet,” Adames said.
Arozarena is hitting almost .500 in 11 postseason games with five homers, three doubles and a triple. Did we mention he has played just 42 regular-season games -- 19 for the Cardinals in 2019 and 23 for the Rays this season.
Ask any of his teammates about him and they struggle to find the words that describe what they’re seeing.
“He’s just a ball of energy and possibly the best player ever,” Curtiss said.
Outfielder Austin Meadows added, “We were joking in the clubhouse that we needed to follow Randy around and get some love. He’s really impressive. He’s a really good teammate, too.”
5. They have resilience and confidence
This isn’t quantifiable except in the bottom line. The Rays trailed in 40 of 60 regular-season games, had MLB’s best record in both one- and two-run games and have come from behind in three of their last four postseason victories.
“They play the game hard nonstop,” Bregman said.
Cash and his players effusively praise the leadership of Adames, Kiermaier and Morton in helping a young club deal with the inevitable ups and downs of a season.
6. Their manager is Kevin Cash
He would rather do almost anything than accept credit for what he says is his players' doing. He relentlessly shuns credit, deflecting to his players, coaches and front office for a season like this.
But his reputation inside the game is that of the perfect manager in 2020: great communicator, excellent strategist and someone so likable and so approachable that his players respect and trust him.
Cash also has smartly built a trusting relationship with one of the game’s most progressive front offices and devours the reams of data -- which means assistance with lineups, pitching matchups and defensive alignments -- that end up on his desk.
“One thing that gets a little bit overlooked is his ability to create an environment where guys are going to play their best baseball,” Wendle said, “and I think that’s what you’ve seen this year.”
7. Because of owner Stuart Sternberg
From the moment he took over the franchise in 2005, he understood that the Rays could not outspend the Red Sox and Yankees in the AL East. But in studying what Billy Beane built in Oakland, he knew there might be a different way to evaluate players, construct rosters and ultimately win games.
The Rays have been ahead of almost everyone in seeing strengths in certain players that other clubs apparently could not. Tampa Bay’s chief baseball executive, Erik Neander, has traded aggressively and fearlessly to obtain players like Arozarena, Adames, Wendle, Fairbanks, Anderson and others.
Tampa Bay’s 226 victories the last three seasons are the fifth-most in MLB despite ranking 28th, 30th and 30th among 30 teams in payroll. To the Rays, though, focusing on them as a perennial underdog simply isn’t fair.
“I mean, we got a talented group of players,” Cash said. "And sometimes that talent doesn't always show up at the same time. But right now, certainly on the pitching and the defense, it's there. They’re playing with very minimal margin of error, and they’re getting it done.”