When the Tampa Bay Rays beat the Oakland Athletics 5-1 in Wednesday night’s American League wild-card game, the focus quickly turned away from their performance on the field to just exactly how they got to this position.
Never mind Yandy Diaz, who hit two of the Rays’ four home runs despite not having played due to injury since July, or starter Charlie Morton producing yet another stellar start by effectively shutting down the A’s.
Once the Rays advanced to the American League Division Series against the World Series favorite Houston Astros, much of the nation again pondered – and in some cases admired -- how the Rays could reach this position on their shoestring budget while wondering out loud how quickly it will take Houston to dispatch the upstart Rays and return baseball to its accustomed balance of power.
Or, who exactly are these Rays, and who’s attending their games in what co-host Michael Wilbon termed a “dump hideous ballpark” on ESPN’s “Pardon The Interruption.”
— Carl Lisciandrello (@carlmarksWUSF) October 4, 2019
Following are excerpts from five national media outlets on how the Rays got here – and their chances heading into Houston for Game 1 tonight:
It's what the Rays do: They invite you into their universe and celebrate you being your best self. Everyone is special. While 29 other teams thought Charlie Morton was too old (he's 35) or too fragile (he never had exceeded 172 innings) or too risky (give me age, give me brittleness, don't give me both), the Rays were smitten. He set career highs in starts (33), innings (194⅔) and strikeouts (240). He should finish third in AL Cy Young voting. His five innings in the wild-card game allowed home runs from (Yandy) Diaz, Tommy Pham and (Avisail) Garcia -- two others cast out by their teams -- to stand up.
Left standing in the end was Ji-Man Choi, in his puddle, his happy place. What the Rays have done -- build up a 96-win major league team in the AL East and develop a farm system deep with future major leaguers -- is awfully enviable. And what's scary is that this is only the beginning.
The safe money is on the Rays folding before the champagne-and-confetti finish line. They've never won it before. Any and all future 2019 postseason foes will have deeper pockets and probably more thump.
Tampa Bay, though, has a power-squelching pitching staff and enough offense to get the job done, as it demonstrated Wednesday against an Oakland team that finished sixth in the game with a 3.97 ERA.
Credit skipper Kevin Cash for pulling the right levers. Among them? Starting (Yandy) Diaz, who is recovering from a foot injury suffered in July and could have been relegated to bench duty.
And credit the Rays for fearlessly donning the team-of-destiny mantle.
"I don't think it can hurt to have confidence and feel like you've got a little bit of magic on your side going into this thing," third baseman Matt Duffy told reporters prior to the Rays' wild-card triumph. "I think it's certainly going to help."
The Rays weren't supposed to be here. But they are.
The 107-win Astros lost season series to five teams, including the Rays, and also including the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds, which only illustrates how some days people may just not feel like playing baseball.
And, also, how the difference between the Astros’ 107 wins and the Rays’ 96 — 97 as of Wednesday night’s game in Oakland, by a score of 5-1, in which a wild-card record crowd cheered the 54,005 who showed up and mourned the nine who did not — is perhaps not as vast as it would appear. That is to say, the Astros would seem to be the far better team and the Rays will not grant them that for at least another three games, if at all.
This best-of-five American League Division Series opens Friday in Houston, two days after the Rays spent 94 pitches from stand-in ace Charlie Morton to get there, and so the wild-card game achieved its objectives of being interesting, being scary and being punitive. The more accomplished team — the Astros — waits, rests and schemes. The Rays, alternatively, flew to Oakland, eliminated the A’s with the sort of surgical game they can play and often did for the prior six months, the right pitch at the right time, the right pitcher at the right time, and just enough offense — in this case four home runs, all hit to their middle or opposite fields. Then they rushed the field, carried on for a while, had a few beers in the clubhouse, laughed at what a time they were having, waved away the cigar smoke and boarded a flight for Houston, for Verlander, Cole and Zack Greinke, in that order, and if that seems like a big job it’s because it will be.
That’s what’s cool and satisfying about being a Tampa Bay Ray. It’s always a big job. The other ballparks are fuller and louder. The other rosters are better paid. The other players they know from the magazine covers and the television specials, from the MVP ceremonies, from all the crazy free-agency hype and fancy endorsement deals.
None of which has anything to do with who plays the better baseball.
With a roster like Tampa’s, every button needs to be pushed at the exact right time, and all those little bets like Diaz need to pay off, or else the whole structure collapses. That’s what happens when your payroll is just $63 million, dead last in baseball and a fifth of what the Red Sox expended to finish with 84 wins and third place in the AL East, looking up at the Rays. I don’t mention that to celebrate it. That Tampa can succeed despite spending about as much on 40 players than the Yankees did on Giancarlo Stanton, Masahiro Tanaka and Jacoby Ellsbury is a testament to the front office and coaching staff, and also an indictment of how baseball works nowadays. The team is owned by a man worth hundreds of millions of dollars and has a TV deal worth over a billion. The persistent issue that is Tropicana Field and its fan-unfriendly location obviously impacts the bottom dollar, but it’s not the reason that the Rays do what they do. They’ve found a way to win on the cheap, and if you can do that, why spend more?
(The answer is that spending more is what theoretically helps you do things like avoid the one-game elimination round that leaves you matched up with an Astros team that might be one of the best in MLB history, but that’s a discussion for another day. And all of this applies to Oakland as well, and plenty more teams, albeit to differing degrees.)
The downside to scrapping and clawing like this is that it puts an inevitable ceiling on what you can accomplish: There’s a reason that this is the Rays’ first postseason trip since 2013, and it’s not just because the Yankees and Red Sox (and, briefly, Orioles and Blue Jays) stood in their way in the East. You can only do so much with so little, and that Tampa has done this much with that little counts as some kind of minor miracle. It’s hard to win championships like that—and no, being the Kings of $/WAR doesn’t count. But on Wednesday night, it was enough to get the Rays past their compatriots in low-cost achievement and earn a date with the Astros in the Division Series, and who knows? Maybe Tampa can go from here to where few small spenders have ever been before.
It was a win that fit well within the contours of baseball in 2019: five innings from their starting pitcher (Charlie Morton), a parade of hard-throwing relievers taking it from there, and all five runs scoring on homers – a pair of solo blasts from first baseman Yandy Diaz, a two-run shot by right fielder Avisail Garcia and a solo shot by designated hitter Tommy Pham.
If the Rays were easy to overlook in this year’s 10-team postseason field, highlighted by four 100-win behemoths, it would be fitting. The Rays are always overlooked. But even if you believe they are destined to be annihilated by the Astros — and it says here they will give Houston a scare — they are worth a moment of admiration.
The Rays are making their first postseason appearance since 2013, but from 2008 to 13 they made it four times, with a World Series appearance in 2008. In going 96-66 this season, they reached the 90-win mark for the sixth time this decade. And they have done it without going through the sort of paralyzing, multi-year, full-scale rebuild that other successful, small- to mid-market teams have done.
Perhaps more than any other team in the game — with the possible exception of the one they were matched against Wednesday night — the Rays epitomize the ideal of doing the most with the least. Their payroll this season, $63.1 million per Spotrac, was the smallest in the majors, and less than one-third that of the major-league-leading Boston Red Sox, whom the Rays beat by 12 games in the AL East this season.