Saturday, April 28, 2012
Rays getting uncommon power boost
By Ben Duronio Special to ESPN.com
Facing baseball’s top team in their ballpark Friday night, the Tampa Bay Rays brought home run power at the plate and strikeouts on the mound to put away the Texas Rangers, 8-4. This marked the sixth consecutive win for the Rays, who have seemingly righted themselves after sputtering to a 4-5 record to start the season.
The Rays have managed to go 9-2 since then, mainly due to a potent offense that is fourth in the American League in runs scored. Evan Longoria has hit like an MVP candidate, currently sporting a .319/.437/.569 line with four home runs, including a three-run shot Friday. Desmond Jennings owns a nine-game hitting streak, during which he's hit .324, and B.J. Upton has come off the disabled list with a vengeance with a .788 OPS.
Newly acquired bats Carlos Pena and Luke Scott have made Rays fans forget the short, though productive, stints in Tampa Bay of Johnny Damon and Casey Kotchman. Pena and Scott have already combined for nine home runs, more than one-third of the amount that Damon and Kotchman produced all of last year. For reference, the Rays have played 12.3 percent of their games so far, so it looks like these one-year deals on the heels of letting Damon and Kotchman walk could provide excess value.
Interestingly, the Rays are not utilizing the stolen base as the catalyst to their offensive production. Last season the Rays finished second in the majors in stolen bases, marking the first time since 2007 that they did not lead the league in the category. Entering last night, the Rays ranked 16th with 12 total steals. The Rays do have stolen-base threats in Jennings and Upton, but the Rays have been generating offense in a different manner than they are accustomed to -- with power.
The Rays have hit 27 home runs this year, tied for fourth in the majors. Longoria, Pena, Scott, and Matt Joyce have hit at least four long balls apiece. Behind them, Jennings and Ben Zobrist have three each. Those hitters comprise the Rays' 1-5 hitters against right-handed pitchers, as Joyce sits against southpaws. The impressive patience and power displayed by the Rays has been evident over their current win streak in that they have hit at least one home run in each of the past five games.
In addition to their offense, which was on display against Rangers lefty Matt Harrison on Friday night, the Rays have gotten a lift from their pitching over their past 10 games. Allowing just 2.9 runs per game has been a huge part of their 8-2 record over that span. Their run prevention has not all been pitching, however, as their defensive shifts have also proven to be effective. Adam Berry of MLB.com has a great article on the Rays and their shifts, along with the index cards they pull out for each hitter. The Rays currently rank second in the majors in Defensive Runs Saved with 19, nine more than the third-place Arizona Diamondbacks.
The Rays pride themselves on taking as many small advantages as possible, which is a testament to the quality of their front office, scouting and management. Signing players like Scott to a $6 million, one-year deal and moving starter Wade Davis to a bullpen role rather than trading him, are just two decisions that appear to be solid. Davis currently has a 1.86 ERA along with eight strikeouts and two walks in 9.2 innings out of the bullpen and was able to get out of a bases-loaded jam unscathed in the eighth inning of Friday’s victory.
The Rays will have to pitch better overall, specifically in the bullpen, over the course of the season. With the type of talent they possess and their excellent defense, their over-4.00 ERA should continue to decrease. With their offense scoring plenty of runs, improved pitching may make them the best team in baseball. But for now, that designation belongs to the team that is in the opposite dugout this weekend: the Rangers.