If the Rays can do for the next six weeks what they've managed to do for the past four months, they'll make the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. Do you realize just how special that is? Do you realize what we are witnessing? Do you understand that this five-year run by the Rays could turn out to be the most improbable five-year run in baseball history? No kidding. Consider this:
Five-year runs don't come along that often
Making the playoffs four times in a five-year span is reserved for the very best and the considerably blessed. Only 15 organizations have pulled off such a feat since Major League Baseball went to division play in 1969.
The fortunate 15 includes some teams that went on longer runs, such as the Braves (14 consecutive playoff appearances from 1991 to 2005) and Yankees (a 13-year streak from 1995 to 2007). It also includes teams that have done it more than once, such as the A's, who have had three such streaks.
But even with the addition of the wild card in 1995, making the postseason four times in five years takes a whole lot of luck to go along with a whole lot of skill. You have to stay healthy. You can't have too many players with off seasons. It helps to be in a mediocre division. You have to hope some other team in your playoff pack isn't having one those everything-goes-right seasons.
Only then can you keep such a run alive.
The Rays come from the wrong side of the tracks
Perhaps the most impressive part of the Rays' run is that they are doing it in a division with the two wealthiest teams in baseball — the Yankees and Red Sox — while being one of the most frugal teams in the sport.
Are they the only small-market team with success? No. The 2002-06 Twins won four division titles in five years and the Moneyball A's — a small-market, low-payroll, statistic-crunching team — made four consecutive postseasons from 2000 to '03. But both took advantage of divisions that didn't have big spenders like the Yankees and Red Sox. And neither ever made a World Series, something the Rays did.
The other teams have familiar faces
Most of the teams that have put together these five-year runs have done it with teams that look pretty much the same from one season to the next.
When you think of the Yankees of the late 1990s, you think Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez, Paul O'Neill, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada. The more current Yankees have had Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira year after year.
Look at the Phillies, the team that beat the Rays in the 2008 World Series. Each team during the Phillies' five-year dash to the postseason from 2007 to '11 had Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Shane Victorino, Carlos Ruiz and Cole Hamels.
The old-school teams of the 1970s before free agency — such as Cincinnati's Big Red Machine, the mustachioed A's, Earl Weaver's Orioles — barely changed.
Sure, teams make trades, sign free agents, add key pieces. But, for the most part, the heart of the order, the pitching staff and the closer stay the same. In other words, the nucleus remains. But …
The Rays are constantly changing
What makes the Rays so different than most of the teams on the list is also what makes this particular Rays run so improbable — the amount of turnover the Rays have had over the five seasons.
Look at how much the Rays have changed over this five-year span. Who is left from that 2008 World Series team who also has been here for all five seasons? Among the everyday regulars, there's Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton. That's it.
Ben Zobrist appeared in only 62 games and bounced back and forth from the minors during that World Series season. Carlos Peña has come and gone and come again. Only James Shields is left from a 2008 starting rotation that featured Matt Garza, Scott Kazmir, Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine.
Each year, it seems, the Rays introduce a whole new set of pieces to their puzzle.
The bullpen is overhauled annually with five different closers leading the team in saves over these five seasons. That's a remarkable statistic for any team, let alone a winning team. So is this: over the five seasons, four different pitchers will lead or tie for the team lead in victories.
Carl Crawford, probably the most productive player in the team history, has been gone for two seasons now. Jason Bartlett, the team's 2008 MVP, has been gone that long, too.
Think of all these random guys who have drifted in and out of Tampa Bay to play key roles for a season or a two at a time, guys like Johnny Damon, Eric Hinske, Jonny Gomes, Cliff Floyd, Casey Kotchman, Akinori Iwamura, Gabe Gross, Willy Aybar, Pat Burrell.
The DHs change. The catchers change. The shortstops change. The winning stays the same.
So how has this happened?
The only thing that hasn't changed is the ownership, the president, the general manager, the manager and the coaching staff. And, no, Stu Sternberg has never struck out a batter. Matt Silverman has never fielded a grounder. Andrew Friedman has never hit a homer. And Joe Maddon has never stolen a base. Yet if the Rays make the postseason, they'll have more playoff appearances in the past five years than the Marlins, Rockies and Expos/Nationals have had in their history.
So don't underestimate what this management group has done. And don't underestimate what this team is on the verge of accomplishing.
And while you're at it, take a moment and appreciate it. What we're seeing doesn't happppen often and might never happen again, at least in these parts.
tom jones' two cents