Young pitchers key to Rays success
Joe Maddon congratulated the Texas Rangers for moving on in the playoffs, then gave his own Tampa Bay Rays a pat on the back.
''For a lot of different reasons it has been a fabulous year,'' the manager said, reflecting on an improbable journey that saw the team with baseball's lowest payroll begin with six straight losses and finish with a remarkable September to clinch its third postseason berth in four years.
At 0-6, Maddon opened a bottle of whiskey and toasted what he called the best 0-6 team in baseball history. Six months later, it's difficult to argue with him.
The Rays wound up winning 91 games, going 16-8 after Sept. 3 to make up nine games on Boston in the wild card standings and finally the big-spending Red Sox on the final night of the regular season. No team has ever overcome a bigger deficit in September to make the playoffs, and no other AL team has earned a spot after starting 0-6.
''I didn't realize I was such a prophet. ... I say a lot of crazy things sometimes, but actually this one kind of came true,'' Maddon said. ''It is the best 0-6 team in the history of major league baseball, and I am very proud of our guys.''
The Rays did it despite vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman trimming payroll by more than $30 million during the offseason.
Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena and most of the bullpen were lost to free agency. Shortstop Jason Bartlett and starting pitcher Matt Garza were traded. And, one of the team's biggest additions - Manny Ramirez - retired the first week of the season rather than face a 100-game suspension after testing positive a second time for a performance-enhancing substance.
Hardly daunted, Maddon not only held the team together but instilled a belief they could get back to the playoffs, even after star Evan Longoria went on the disabled list in April and the Rays gradually slipped farther and farther behind the Yankees and Red Sox in playoff contention.
''We knew that was going to happen when the offseason started to arrive. Andrew and I spoke a lot about it, and you just start making your plans for the future,'' Maddon said.
A young, talented starting rotation of James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann made Maddon's job a little easier. Relievers Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta were signed as free agents, and designated hitter Johnny Damon was brought in to provide much-needed leadership on and off the field.
''The starting pitching has made all of this work. And that's the one thing in the offseason, when I talked about the demise of the Rays being greatly exaggerated, was the fact I knew we had this great young starting group of pitchers,'' Maddon said. ''If you don't have that core group of starters, there's no way you could compete or do what we did this year. It is imposssible.''
Shields rebounded from a subpar year to win a career-best 16 games and become an All-Star. David Price was selected as an All-Star for the secod time, although he went winless in September to finish with 12 wins - down from 19 in 2010. Hellickson won 13 games and is one of the leading candidates for AL rookie of the year.
And there's no good pitching on the way. Matt Moore made his second big league start in Game 1 of the playoffs against Texas and shut down the defending AL champions on two hits over seven innings of a 9-0 victory. Including that postseason win, rookies were the winning pitchers in 10 of Tampa Bay's 18 victories after Sept. 3.
''The fact that we did have that group, they made the bullpen better,'' Maddon said. ''We didn't have to score as many runs to win games because they were so good. Every night you take the field ... we know we have a pretty good chance of winning because of our starters.''
With attendance lagging, the current $41 million payroll is not likely to rise much in 2012. As much as Friedman would like to bolster an offense that struggled to score runs, the Rays are not in a position to mortgage the future by trading top prospects or spending big bucks in free agency to land a bat or two for the middle of the lineup.
Nevertheless, there will be change. Friedman has been a master at bringing in low-priced free agents that have helped the team remain a playoff contender.
Damon was the team's highest paid player at $5 million this season. First baseman Casey Kotchman signed a minor league contract last winter and wound up batting a career-best .306 in 146 games.
''The tough thing is, you look around the room, you know some guys may not be back next year. Trades happen. Free-agency happens. This was definitely a special bunch,'' Damon said after Tuesday's 4-3 loss in Game 4 of ALDS ended the season.
''Unfortunately, history only remembers the champions,'' Damon added. ''I do think the month of September really won us a lot of hearts with the fans. It was fun.''