The Rays are into all kinds of new math. From the complex statistical analyses generated by the front office crew to the twisted arithmetical logic of manager Joe Maddon's 9=8 motto of two years ago, they consider baseball a numbers game. But as they venture into the playoffs this afternoon, they realize their success will be the result of a simple, and somewhat old-school, variable:
How well they pitch.
"With us, we have to pitch well to advance," Maddon said. "We have to. It is that simple.
"We're going to play the same kind of game offensively. We're going to catch the ball on defense. We're going to run on the bases. We've got to be able to limit the other team."
As basic as that sounds, and as likely as it is that Ron Gardenhire is saying the same thing in Minnesota and Bobby Cox in Atlanta and even Ron Washington in Texas' clubhouse at Tropicana Field this morning, for the Rays it is a stark reality based on how they're built and how they play.
"I was thinking about exactly that driving in," Maddon said last week. "It's got to be at least 75 percent of your success to be able to have your starters go out and pitch like you know that they can, and your bullpen able to maintain the same kind of form during the playoffs that permitted you to win during the season."
Actually, pitching coach Jim Hickey said, Maddon's math might be off.
"If pitching is 90 percent of the ball game in the regular season, it's probably 95 percent in the postseason," Hickey said.
"If not more."
The Rays feel confident, of course, that they are equipped to handle it — from the start, with a rotation led by David Price, to the finish, with Rafael Soriano untucking his shirt after getting the final out.
The formula served the Rays well during the regular season, as they compiled an AL-most 96 wins. The starters kept them in the game until the offense came around, the defense bailed them out and the bullpen finished it off.
"It's not that different than the '08 team in the sense that we relied a lot on our pitching and defense," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "And that will definitely be our recipe for success this October."
Now they just have to do it.
Playing to strength
Managing a pitching staff in the postseason is a little different.
For some teams, there is a tremendous advantage in using only three or four starters (i.e., the Yankees and Phillies). For the Rays, not so much. They were built with depth one-through-five in their rotation (all had 12 or more wins), so if anything, it just made for a tough choice in deciding whom to exclude (they settled on Jeff Niemann) since they can bring Price back for a potential fifth game.
But the Rays gain an advantage in how they can handle their bullpen. Given the frequency of days off in the postseason — they'd play no more than two straight days in the first round and no more than three in a row at any stage, barring rainouts — they should be able to stick primarily to their top-shelf choices: Randy Choate and Grant Balfour in the key sixth- and seventh-inning moments, Joaquin Benoit in the eighth and Soriano at the end.
Which is a position, of course, they like to be in. "I like our guys for the last six outs better than any other duo at the end of the bullpen," Hickey said.
New kind of tension
The actual pitching in the postseason can be different, too.
That became incredibly obvious to Shields as he stood on the mound to start the 2008 division series opener at the Trop. And he had 35,000 people and a national television audience sharing his moment of self-discovery.
"It was a completely different feeling than during the season," Shields said. "Warming up, seeing the crowd, the media, knowing that everybody is watching you because you're the only baseball game on, that's all exciting.
"And once that first inning was over with for me, then it was kind of like a normal game. I definitely had a sigh of relief, no doubt about it."
The biggest difference, he felt, was the additional significance attached.
"You definitely have to bear down on every single pitch," he said. "Everything is magnified in the playoffs. Everything is crucial. Every moment. Every pitch."
For Wade Davis, and for Soriano and Benoit (among those making their playoff debuts), that will be a new experience.
Strong start, finish
The Rays would like to think they are in good hands by putting the ball in Price's left hand for today's opener.
The 25-year-old emerged in his first full season to become as close to an ace as there is, winning 19 games (with only six losses), starting the All-Star Game and turning the Cy Young Award into an interesting debate.
When the other starters struggled as the season went on — James Shields and Matt Garza with inconsistency, Davis and Niemann with shoulder strains that resulted in disabled list stints — Price was the one starter they could count on, and he showed he was close to earning the "ace" label Maddon rarely hands out.
"I really refrain from using the A word, but … it's undeniable,'' Maddon said. "Here's a guy that's won 19 games now, has been 9-2 in the American League East, started the All-Star Game this year well, has pitched some really big moments in September for us in a very efficient manner. He's definitely growing into that No. 1 kind of a guy.
"He's still a young man and if you talk to him, I know he still sees room for improvement in different areas, and that's what I love about him. He's never going to be satisfied. … He's made a lot of strides this year and as he becomes more experienced over the next couple years, absolutely he's going to be a strong No. 1 pitcher."
Conversely, the Rays weren't sure what to expect out of Soriano. They saw him as a potential lock-down closer when they acquired him unexpectedly from the Braves during the winter meetings — and added his $7.25 million to their already over-budget payroll — but it was a role he had never handled for a full season before.
Given his AL-best 45 saves, that worked out pretty well, too.
"I had no idea," Maddon said. "Watching him, it struck me that he was so unflappable. That part of it was really interesting to me, and I was waiting to see if at any point he became more flappable. And the other interesting part is that he's not just a closer, he's a pitcher."
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org