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Pitching, defense make Tampa Bay Rays a formidable postseason opponent

ARLINGTON, Texas

The Rays feel they can beat the Rangers in their first-round AL Division Series that starts today. Then they can take down the Tigers or Yankees in the AL Championship Series. And after that finish off whichever of the four teams survives the National League side of the bracket. • After what they pulled off to get here, they'd better. • "I think right now there's nothing that we don't think that we can't do," manager Joe Maddon said. "We believe. If anybody in the locker room doesn't believe anything is possible right now, I want to meet them one-on-one in my office." • The Rays have all kinds of mythical and magical reasons to be confident, given how they battled their way back into the playoff picture after being nine games out as late as Sept. 3, how the Red Sox

cooperated with a historic collapse, and how many amazing things happened in both teams' Wednesday season finales.

Enough that the Rangers have noticed. "They've got a lot of luck on their side right now," second baseman Ian Kinsler said.

But the Rays also have distinct advantages that are quite tangible and real: The arms on their top-shelf starting pitchers and the hands of their dazzling defenders.

Particularly at this time of year, when both are at a premium and offense tends to be a minimum.

"Within 162 games, I think teams don't mind playing us," top starter James Shields said. "But when it comes down to a five-game series or a seven-game series, we're a pretty tough team to beat because we do have the pitching and the defense, and we do have some guys that can step up to the plate and get the job done as well. When it comes down to a short series like that, we're definitely a team to reckon with."

Or, with a bit more bravado, from pitching coach Jim Hickey:

"We're as formidable an opponent as anybody out there, and I'm pretty comfortable saying I don't think anybody really looks forward to playing us."

That's because pitching tends to dominate in the postseason, with the Giants' 2010 world championship considered the latest example of why October can be an arms race.

"Very few teams slug their way to the championship," Hickey said. "Everybody gets neutralized a bit. If you go in there with the Philadelphia Phillies or masher lineups like the Yankees and the Red Sox, those types of lineups don't score the seven, eight, nine runs as is relatively common throughout the course of the regular season."

While some teams stagger into October with starters on their last gasp, the Rays stormed in, riding a rotation that posted an AL-low 3.53 ERA and pitched a league-high 1,058 innings. As they waited until Thursday night to name rookie Matt Moore the starter for today's opener, it wasn't because they were desperate but facing multiple options.

"There's no replacement for starting pitching," catcher Kelly Shoppach said.

The defense is also a big part of their success, as they try to have an above-average defender at every position and do extensive scouting and data analysis to position them properly, trying, as Maddon likes to say, to catch line drives.

The emphasis pays off, as they made a major-league-low 73 errors while posting the top fielding percentage, .988.

"We're pretty solid, pretty steady every day," Shoppach said. "And occasionally you look up and it's like, 'Golly, we can really pick it.' "

Given the lack of power and steady production from their lineup, that's kind of how they have to do it. "That's who we are," Maddon said.

And starting today, that's exactly what they want to be.

"I feel like we've got a great chance of winning it," centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "Our pitching and defense carried us all year, and those are definitely two important things you have to have to win. We wouldn't be where we are without it.

"I like our chances against anybody."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

Pitching, defense make Tampa Bay Rays a formidable postseason opponent 09/29/11 [Last modified: Friday, September 30, 2011 1:30am]
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