Sports Nut: How the Tampa Bay Rays beat the Boston Red Sox.

The stadium scene.
Oct. 20 2008 3:06 PM

The Smartest Team in Baseball

How the Rays beat the Red Sox.

Akinori Iwamura and Cliff Floyd of Tampa Bay. Click image to expand.
Akinori Iwamura and Cliff Floyd of Tampa Bay

Over the next few days, you're going to learn a lot more about the Tampa Bay Rays than you ever thought you'd need to know. Thank goodness they're an unusually interesting bunch. Freakishly talented center fielder B.J. Upton, for instance, is only the second-best major leaguer to have played middle infield for the 1993 Virginia Blasters. Fifth outfielder Fernando Perez is a Columbia graduate with a taste for Howard Zinn. General manager Andrew Friedman, 31, was a Bear Stearns analyst before making a well-timed exit into baseball. And manager Joe Maddon has fashion-forward glasses and a taste for wine. Wacky!

For all their charming eccentricity, the Rays also happen to be really good at baseball. They beat out the New York Yankees for a playoff spot with a payroll one-fifth as big. They went into Fenway Park last week tied 1-1 in the American League Championship Series and kicked the Boston Red Sox around like dogs, outscoring the defending champs 29-5 over one stretch. And after the Red Sox made the greatest playoff comeback in at least 80 years in Game 5, winning a game they had essentially no mathematical chance of winning, the Rays still pulled it out, for reasons having nothing to do with Upton's mohawk, all of which were on display in their Game 7 win on Sunday night.

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What makes the Rays so good? Start with defense. The Rays ranked first in baseball in defensive efficiency this year, which measures how many balls in play they turn into outs. Jason Bartlett, a great-field/no-hit shortstop of a kind that's been out of fashion for at least a decade, showed how they do it in the second inning, materializing from the ether behind second base to rob Mark Kotsay of a base hit. You won't see ostentatious dives from the Rays, but you will see them in areas of the field they have no business being in. Bartlett, left fielder Carl Crawford, first baseman Carlos Pena, and second baseman Akinori Iwamura all rated among the top three in the league at their positions in making plays outside of their zones—that is, ranging beyond the space they're supposed to cover to corral balls that would otherwise go for fits. With all those great fielders, the Rays play like they have 10 men on the field.

That hurts all the more for opposing hitters given that the Rays have so many hard throwers. Matt Garza, the ALCS most valuable player, mowed down the Red Sox in Game 7, striking out nine in seven innings. Ranked ninth in the league this year in average fastball speed, Garza was one of four Rays starters to rank in the league's top 30. The hardest-throwing Ray of all is left-hander David Price, the No. 1 overall pick in last year's draft. Price closed out the Red Sox with heat and brutal sliders, looking like the reincarnation of Steve Carlton. After Price's performance, the only good news for the Phillies is that the Rays' secret weapon is a secret no longer.

Defense and pitching are to baseball what transparency and accountability are to politics: Is there anyone who's not in favor of them? Of course, there's also virtue in hitting the living hell out of the ball. The main reason the Rays won is that they set an ALCS record for most home runs in a series, doing so against a fine Boston pitching staff. The Rays aren't, from one angle, a team of power hitters; they have five everyday players who hit fewer than 10 home runs this year. On the other hand, they did hit 180 long balls this year, as many as the Yankees, and they have a surprising depth of power, with bench hitters and platoon guys like Ben Zobrist and Willy Aybar—who hit a crucial home run in Game 7 that turned a 2-1 lead into a 3-1 gap—up in the double digits. As Joe Torre said last week, the Rays have sneaky power.