MLB

MLB playoffs 2021: Rays enter postseason after dominant campaign

By Sports Desk October 06, 2021

No team does more with less than the Tampa Bay Rays. It hasn't yet paid off in a World Series title, but that day could be drawing near.

Following the best regular season in history, the 100-win Rays are set to open Thursday's American League Division Series (ALDS) against the Boston Red Sox, who defeated the New York Yankees 6-2 in Tuesday's Wild Card game. Playing in the postseason has become commonplace for Tampa Bay – the Rays lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games in last season's World Series after falling to the Houston Astros in the 2019 ALDS.

This season was particularly gratifying for the budget-conscious Rays, who had the AL's best record in consecutive seasons for the first time. They should have no fear facing the Red Sox following an 11-8 record in the season series, including 7-3 at home.

Tampa Bay went a franchise-record 51–25 against the AL East in a year when four of five times won 90 games, the first time that's happened since baseball went to six divisions in 1994. The Rays accomplished all this with 61 different players, including 38 pitchers, both franchise records.

While the core of this year's Rays team is much the same as last season, their scheduled starting pitchers for Games 1 and 2 of the ALDS are rookies Shane McClanahan and Shane Baz. Tampa Bay will become just the second team in postseason history to start rookie pitchers in the first two games of a playoff series, joining the 2012 Oakland Athletics in the ALDS (Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone).

McClanahan, 24, went 10-6 with a 3.43 ERA and 141 strikeouts in 25 starts in his rookie campaign and the 22-year-old Baz - the team's number one prospect – has just three starts on his major league resume. McClanahan allowed more than three runs just three times in his 25 starts and Baz totalled 18 strikeouts and surrendered only six hits in 13.1 innings as a major leaguer.

The left-handed McClanahan relies heavily on heat and his fastball velocity of 96.5 mph was the fourth highest by an AL starter (minimum 750 thrown as a starter) this season. Only Gerrit Cole (97.7), Nathan Eovaldi (96.9) and Dylane Cease (96.7) were better. McClanahan handled the Red Sox very well this season, posting a 2.81 ERA in three starts with 18 strikeouts in 16 innings.

When the Rays opened the 2020 postseason against the Toronto Blue Jays, their first two starters were Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow. Due to budget constraints for a team that ranked 26th in payroll this season at $76.6million, Snell was traded to the San Diego Padres in the offseason and Glasnow was limited to 14 starts due to a season-ending elbow injury.

 

An injury to their ace and the trade of a former Cy Young Award winner hardly mattered as the Rays led the AL with a 3.67 ERA. Elite pitching has become the norm for Tampa Bay, which has a 3.64 ERA since the start of the 2019 season, a mark bettered only by the mega-payroll Los Angeles Dodgers (3.16) during that span. Dodgers' pitchers Trevor Bauer and Clayton Kershaw – both of whom won't be pitching this postseason – earned a combined $69m this season, just $7.6m less than the entire Rays payroll.

The Rays bullpen is also a major strength and another area where they seem to have an unrivalled ability to find contributors from out of nowhere. The relievers underwent an overhaul during the season and saves leader Diego Castillo was traded to Seattle in late July. J.T. Chargois was acquired as part of that deal, and he went 5-1 with a 1.90 ERA in 25 appearances.

Tampa Bay's relievers led the majors with 58 wins and topped the AL with a 3.23 ERA, holding opponents to a .224 batting average despite pitching a major league-high 703 innings. While that is a lot of innings for a bullpen to cover, Andrew Kittredge led the team with 57 appearances to rank tied for 99th in MLB.

While the Rays and their uncanny ability to develop pitching consistently garners most of the headlines, this season's club also features a potent and diverse offense that scored a franchise-record 857 runs, second most in the majors behind the Astros (863). Just as impressive is Tampa Bay scoring a major league-best 312 runs in the seventh inning or later, with the next-closest team the San Francisco Giants (276).

Austin Meadows spearheads the line-up and is coming off a career-high 106 RBIs this season, one every 4.89 at-bats. That is the third-best RBI rate of any qualified AL player this season. Ahead of Meadows are Toronto's Teoscar Hernandez (4.74) and Jose Abreu (4.84) of the Chicago White Sox. Meadows is the first Tampa Bay player to reach 100 RBIs since Evan Longoria in 2010.

Prized rookie Wander Franco made his major league debut on June 22 and sparked the Rays to a 46-24 record the rest of the way. The 20-year-old Franco reached base in 43 consecutive games at one point, tying Frank Robinson (1956) for the longest such streak by a player 20 years or younger. Franco's .439 on-base percentage against lefties since the All-Star break ranked fifth in MLB.

Randy Arozarena has already proven he can flourish in the postseason. He was the talk of the 2020 playoffs after he slashed .377/.429/.831 and set postseason records for home runs (10) and hits (29) en route to winning MVP honours in the AL Championship Series (ALCS). Arozarena's 2021 was not nearly as devastating, but he did become just the third player in franchise history to collect 20 steals and 20 home runs (BJ Upton and Tommy Pham).

Tampa Bay can mash with the best of teams, ranking tied for third in the AL with 222 home runs, including five players with at least 20. Brandon Lowe finally stayed injury-free, and the result was 39 home runs and 99 RBI, including the first three-homer game by a left-handed batter in team history.  

Those 39 homers tied him for second in Rays history in single-season homers, trailing Carlos Pena's 46 in 2007. Lowe, Mike Zunino (33) and Meadows (27) combined for 99 home runs, tied for third most of any team-mate trio in the majors.

Zunino only batted .216 but he crushed left-handed pitching to the tune of a major league-high .868 slugging percentage (minimum 100 plate appearances). His 33 home runs were the most by a Rays catcher and all came while catching. That total was two shy of the AL record while catching, set by Ivan Rodriguez in 1999.

Nelson Cruz was acquired from the Minnesota Twins in July and the 41-year-old provided exactly what the Rays hoped with 13 homers and 36 RBIs in 55 games with strong leadership. He has always loved to hit at Fenway Park with a .343 life-time average, 14 home runs and 44 RBIs in 49 games at baseball's oldest park. Cruz's batting average at Fenway ranks third among active players (minimum 100 at-bats).

The Rays had the AL East locked up weeks ago and even the best record in the AL wasn't a huge challenge, so they haven't played pressure-packed games in a while. Still, with nothing left to play for this past weekend, they won two of three at Yankee Stadium and proved they have no problem turning it on when necessary.

A case can easily be made that no team is heading into the postseason with such a high level of both offense and pitching as the Rays. Tampa Bay have truly become the city of champions lately with the success of the NHL's Lightning and NFL's Buccaneers and the Rays could very well add their name to that list.

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