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Rays do one thing better than any other team in the AL: Win

John Romano | Tampa Bay swept Toronto in the first round of the playoffs, and is now heading to the bubble in San Diego to continue its World Series quest.
The Rays celebrate after beaten the Blue Jays Wednesday to advance to the American League Division Series.
The Rays celebrate after beaten the Blue Jays Wednesday to advance to the American League Division Series. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Oct. 1, 2020|Updated Oct. 1, 2020

Dear Lightning,

Cool boat parade. Can we borrow the keys?

Signed,

The Rays

Too soon? Of course, it is.

The postseason path to lift baseball’s World Series trophy in 2020 is longer than ever before, and Tampa Bay has only made it through the first, and theoretically, easiest step after beating Toronto 8-2 for a two-game, opening-round sweep on Wednesday.

But would you put it past these guys to bring another trophy home to Tampa Bay?

Winning is the one thing they do better than everyone else. They didn’t score as many runs as the Yankees or White Sox this year, and their ERA wasn’t as spiffy as Cleveland or Minnesota. If you’re looking for a league-leading category, I can confirm Rays hitters struck out more than any offense in baseball.

Oh, and they also won more games than any team in the American League.

“It’s not like anything I’ve ever been a part of. It’s the most complete team from 1 to 28, I’ll go on to say from 1 to 60,” said catcher Mike Zunino, who homered on Wednesday. "Everyone cares for one another, and I think that goes a long way as teammates, as people. That’s what (manager Kevin Cash) preaches right away when we get to camp: be a good teammate.

“Guys really buy into that, and when you can trust the guy to your left and right, it makes it easy to go to play every day.”

Can it really be that simple? Yes and no. The way Cash gets players to buy into their roles and disregard their stats is a huge factor in Tampa Bay’s success, but the front office has also collected an impressive array of talent. It’s just that it’s not confined to a handful of big-name hitters in the middle of the order. This is a roster filled with platoons and role players and specialized talents.

Do you know how many regulars the Rays had in the lineup this season? Two. That’s an actual, official tally based on the number of plate appearances required to qualify for the batting title.

Only Brandon Lowe and Willy Adames received enough playing time to be considered full-time starters, making the Rays the only team in the majors with so many revolving spots in their lineup.

“What we do have and what make them formidable is the entire roster is used to help us win games and we do that consistently during the season and we’re definitely going to do it during the postseason,” Cash said. "In comparison to other clubs, everybody gets there a different way. Our way is what we think, with the shape of our roster, is most beneficial to winning games.

“And credit (players) for their buy-in for that approach and understanding.”

This would explain how your leadoff hitter in Game 1 had a .197 batting average this year, and your closer had zero saves. Your cleanup hitter for Game 2 hit two home runs all season, and one of the guys in the bullpen has never played in a big-league game.

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Mind you, those are not meant to be slights. It’s more like admiration.

Due to their revenue limitations, the Rays look for players who are undervalued because they may not have numbers that jump off the back of a baseball card but who do certain things extremely well. For instance, guys who rake against left-handed pitchers. Or relievers who can come in with runners on base and get ground balls.

Here’s an example:

Minnesota signed Josh Donaldson to play third base for $21 million this season. Donaldson and his backups finished with a .230 batting average with eight homers and 23 RBI. The Rays, meanwhile, had four different players start at least eight games at third base and got a .291 batting average with seven homers and 20 RBI out of the position. Those four players combined to make $6.7 million in salary.

As Cash said, everybody gets there a different way.

Blue Jays manager Charlie Montoyo was the Rays bench coach in 2018 when they won 90 games. Two years later, he was looking across the field into a dugout Wednesday that was barely recognizable. Of the 28 players on the current roster, 18 were not in Tampa Bay two years ago.

It’s part of what the Rays do. They take a 90-win team, shuffle it up and come out with a 96-win team in 2019. And now, a year later, they have a team that’s looking like the AL’s best bet to reach the World Series.

“Honestly, to me, they’re the best team in the American League,” Montoyo said.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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