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If there was a way to quantify what makes a team interesting, the Tampa Bay Rays would find it. Maybe they already have. They play like trapped in a funny house mirror, crazy and warped and wonderfully strange – and always bigger than they appear.
The Rays brought their slings to Yankee Stadium on Monday for a four-game series with the paper giants of the Bronx. The Rays of course won 3-1 and now have the best baseball record at 35:20. You make a habit of humiliating the Yankees.
“I would be lying if I said that we all don’t have a little more time for a series with the Yankees,” said centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier on Monday morning. “Have fun.”
Kiermaier is the only Rays player to make more than $ 6.5 million this season. The Yankees have 10 but are five and a half games behind Tampa Bay in the American League East. The Rays have won 16 of their last 17 games overall and – including last fall’s division series – 20 of their last 27 against the Yankees.
On Monday, Tampa Bay won with a former Yankee who started and closed, but you may have missed your time in New York. Rich Hill, who took the win, briefly threw himself into pinstripes in 2014. JP Feyereisen, who got the Save, joined the Yankees in 2016 as part of the Andrew Miller deal from Cleveland. He never escaped the minors in New York.
These were the other Rays’ pitchers on Monday: Michael Wacha, who flopped with the Mets last season; Pete Fairbanks, who was acquired by Texas in 2019 for a former Yankees prospect, Nick Solak; and Ryan Thompson, a former rule 5 armed pick who wears the number 81.
The rays use a similar combination every day. More than any other franchise, they have recognized and taken advantage of the overarching feature of the modern game: the huge inventory of quality pitchers. They never pay too much because they know they don’t have to. They build cheap and effective employees by highlighting the pitchers’ best things without asking too much.
“We try to identify the strengths of an arm, ensure that they understand their strengths, and thereby give them the confidence to go out and maximize who they are,” said General Manager Erik Neander on Monday by phone.
“We’re really not trying to complicate it. This game is really powered by – I mean, it’s skill – but it’s trust. There are a lot of people here who have the ability. It makes sure that they know themselves. “
That might as well be the mantra for the organization. The rays know exactly who they are. They have low income, low attendance, and a reckless approach to roster management.
After losing the World Series to the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games last October, Tampa Bay lost two of its top three starters, turned down a $ 15 million option on Charlie Morton and traded Blake Snell for the San Diego Padres . Those weren’t easy calls, said Neander, but they were sensible.
“In the past few years Charlie and Blake have been in the middle of our success,” he said. “But when these two guys didn’t appear in a game, the rest of that unit also won 60 percent of those games. That at least gave us some confidence that we still had a chance to be okay. “
And so are they. Snell, who fought for the Padres, brought back two prospects including catcher Francisco Mejia and starter Luis Patino, who looked good in a short promotion and is now expanding his workload with the minors.
Morton, the Rays took the money they would have paid him and essentially split it among four veterans: Hill, Wacha, Chris Archer, and Collin McHugh – a diverse portfolio the way Tampa Bay likes it.
“So much in this game is about appreciating what you can’t see coming,” said Neander. “Often times we win with talent, but we really win with depth by bringing as many options on the table as possible so that you have access to all of the surprises that happen, good and bad.”
McHugh was dominant as the opener and middle man in May. Archer is recovering from a forearm injury. Wacha was inconsistent but beat the Yankees in April. Hill was superb: 4-2 with a 3.32 ERA after five innings on Monday.
After only 56 pitches he went abruptly, but of course the Rays try to prevent the opponents from glancing too much at their pitchers. That strategy failed in the final game of the World Series when they shoved Snell out of a shutout. It worked on Monday with Hill’s blessing.
“I know what we’re doing here and what the buy-in is like,” said Hill, 41, the majors’ oldest pitcher. “Being on board is important for an overall victory as a team.”
Feyereisen joined the team from Milwaukee last month for a shortstop Willy Adames. The Rays had so much depth behind Adames that they phoned one shortstop, Taylor Walls, while another – the best-consensus view among minors, Wander Franco – remains in the AAA class.
“Erik Neander, he’s a genius, man,” said Kiermaier. “He brings along great people who also have great talent, people who fit exactly into the atmosphere we’ve built here over the years. And here we are with the best record in the AL “
The Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, and Houston Astros all hired Rays managers to conduct their baseball operations. The path of the rays is expanding and that is a problem. You don’t want a league full of copycats because high-paying stars and long-lasting starting pitchers are critical to baseball’s appeal. The Rays mix-and-match offense also leads the majors to strike at a time when the sport needs more balls in play, not fewer.
But for who they are and how they do it, the rays are a miracle. At the moment they are almost unbeatable and heed Kiermaier’s message from a recent clubhouse speech.
“Hey, let’s not get hot,” said Kiermaier and repeated what he said to the team. “Because if we do that, the rest of the league has to be careful.”