When preparing a list of the biggest MLB surprises this season, there are several that come to mind.
The Seattle Mariners and Cleveland Indians were supposed to contend in their divisions and were out of contention by the end of June.
The NL Central was supposed to be weak, and yet it produced two playoff teams.
The NL West went from having two playoff teams last season to being doormats this season.
While all of these things are pretty suprising, the biggest shock of all this baseball season has been the play of the Tampa Bay Rays. Under manager Joe Maddon, they went from worst-to-first in the AL East, improving by 31 games to finish with 97 wins, good for second-best in all of baseball.
Their team ERA was 3.82, good for 2nd in the American League. Their team WHIP was 1.29. They had five starters with at least 11 wins, and the highest ERA among the bunch belonged to Edwin Jackson at 4.42, but he still managed 14 wins, a testament to the character of the team.
Not to be forgotten, the offense improved by leaps and bounds this year as well. They were 2nd in the AL in walks, first in stolen bases, and had a run differential of +103.
They have a legitimate Rookie of the Year contender in Evan Longoria, who slugged 27 HRs and 85 RBIs in only 122 games. While his defense is hardly stellar (.963 fielding percentage), he does play on an incredibly tough field-turf diamond that eats rookies for breakfast, so it’s really not that bad. Oh yeah, and he’s already hit two postseason HRs, becoming the only player not named Gary Gaetti to hit HRs in his first two career postseason ABs.
Also, BJ Upton saw his strikeouts go down and his walks go up, and he stole a career high 44 bases. His hustle was called into question by a series of benchings by Maddon, but they seemed to get the point across, as evidenced by his triple this afternoon against the Sox.
With all of this being said, can this team, with nearly no postseason experience, overcome the likes of 2 of the last 3 World Series champions, and take home a championship in this year of their re-birth?
The answer is a resounding yes.
The Boston Red Sox are a team that is dealing with health issues at a bad time. Josh Beckett is still nursing a strained oblique, and Mike Lowell was benched in Game 2 with a bad hip. Also, Jonathan Masterson looked vulnerable in his outing today, and Daisuke only pitched 5 innings against Los Angeles.
In addition, the Rays finished with a record of 10-8 against Boston, including a 7-2 record against them in the final 9 games of the season series.
In terms of facing off against a National League opponent, the Rays have two things on their side.
They finished 12-6 against the National League this season, including a three game sweep over the Cubs in June. They had a team batting average of .290 in interleague play, in addition to 23 home runs.
The other is that they would have home field advantage in the World Series. They are nearly unbeatable at Tropicana Field this season, having gone 8-1 vs. Boston at the Trop and they were 57-24 overall. In addition, they are 23-2 when they draw more than 30,000 fans, a number eclipsed in both games vs. the White Sox.
The Rays present a compelling case as World Series contenders, but do they have what it takes to survive the rigors of October, often the cruelest and longest month on the MLB slate? If their performance this season is any indication, I wouldn’t bet against them.