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America is finally learning the Rays are not just a cute meme

John Romano | It’s normal to talk about the Rays' oddities, but the truth is they play old-fashioned, basic baseball.
Rays shortstop Willy Adames makes a sliding stop on a ball hit by Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman during the third inning.
Rays shortstop Willy Adames makes a sliding stop on a ball hit by Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman during the third inning. [ DENIS POROY | Special to the Times ]
Published Oct. 13, 2020

For the longest time, the Rays have been baseball’s version of a sideshow.

They were odd, they were cute, they were surprisingly good. Fans and critics would marvel at their strategies and applaud their successes, but it wasn’t like the Rays were ever cover boys or prime time candidates.

No matter who was telling the story, it always sounded the same. The Rays were overachievers on the field and underachievers at the box office. And — gee, sorry fellas — just not good enough to knock off baseball’s big boys.

In the next few days, that narrative is about to change.

America is finally coming to understand what you have known all along. There’s nothing fluky about this team. There’s no sleight of hand involved. You just have to watch the Rays day after day to understand what makes them the best team in the American League.

The avant-garde strategies may get all the attention, but they win with the basics. They just arrive there differently from most franchises. They use depth as a weapon, both in the lineup and in the bullpen. And they don’t just talk about defense, they make it a priority.

Take Monday afternoon’s 4-2 victory against the Astros in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series. The game came down to a very simple concept: Houston bungled a key play, and the Rays were outstanding in the field. Not just errorless, but outstanding.

So it didn’t matter that Astros starter Lance McCullers outpitched Charlie Morton. And it didn’t matter that Houston’s lineup outhit the Rays. In the end, the game turned when Jose Altuve made an error and the Rays took advantage with a three-run homer by Manuel Margot.

Simple. Classic. Old school.

“We talked about it last night, how do you win close ballgames? You’ve got to be good at it over time. You have to make plays,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “What Joey Wendle and what Willy (Adames) did today was remarkable. And then we capitalize on a miscue. Good teams have the ability to do that. You’re not always going to do that, but Joey’s defense and Willy’s defense was as bright a spot as anything going for us.”

Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that. The Rays were one of the first teams to embrace defensive shifts, and they’re still better at it than most. So Adames was in position to catch a screaming line drive from Alex Bregman with a runner on second in the first, and another line drive from Carlos Correa to lead off the second. And second baseman Brandon Lowe was perfectly set up for a critical double play on a George Springer shot with the bases loaded in the ninth inning.

“It’s been four years now that I’ve had the privilege to be on the mound with a phenomenal defense behind me, infield and outfield,” said Morton, who pitched in Houston before coming to Tampa Bay in 2019. “It allows you a ton of freedom to go out there and just pitch your game with some semblance of reckless abandon.”

The homers by Margot and Mike Zunino are also good examples. The Rays have complete confidence in their thought processes, and so they’re never afraid to make decisions that might come back later to bite them in the rear.

With McCullers on the mound, the logical choice was to start lefthanded-hitting Yoshi Tsutsugo in leftfield and maybe lefthanded-hitting Michael Perez at catcher. After all, depth and platoons are at the heart of the offense.

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Instead, Margot was hitting in the No. 5 hole. This is a guy who had one home run and a .352 slugging percentage in the regular season, which were both career lows. Didn’t matter. Cash doesn’t care about appearances as much as what’s going to work on a given day. That lack of fear of being second-guessed is incredibly liberating for the front office to make roster moves and the manager to make lineup decisions.

So Margot hits a three-run homer and Zunino later adds a solo blast.

“We’ve got a talented group of players. Sometimes that talent doesn’t always show up at the same time, but right now, certainly on the pitching and the defense, it’s there,” Cash said. “They are playing with very minimal margin of error, and they’re getting it done.”

It is playing within that margin of error that is so impressive.

The Rays beat the Yankees in the division series, even though they were outscored over the five games. They’ve beaten the Astros two in a row even though Houston’s pitching staff has a 1.69 ERA and Astros hitters have nearly twice as many (19 to 10) hits.

It isn’t luck, and it isn’t a mirage. The Rays have been this way for three years now.

And America is about to realize there isn’t a better all-around team in the American League.

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