It’s not that I thought they were a bad team; I simply deemed them overrated and beatable this season before their farm system produces more star power. In fact, as the Yankees stomped past the Rays in June, I bemoaned the unlikelihood of a Yankees-Rays postseason series for that very reason.
Now, however, the Rays are one game from doing the dang thing, beating the Astros and advancing to the ALCS while making this writer look foolish. The Athletic MLB’s staff all picked the Astros to win the World Series, and the majority of the baseball writing public did the same. Whether they picked the A’s or Rays in the Wild Card Game, the expectation for the ALDS was all the same.
You may choose to dismiss the Rays’ rise as randomness. Anything can happen in a short series. Verlander was pitching on short rest. Nah, this is remarkable, even if it’s just two games. Tampa Bay just soundly beat two former Cy Young winners — including one presumably on the verge of winning his second — and have forced a winner-take-all contest with the best team in baseball.
The two wins haven’t been flukes, either. The Rays relied upon their ace, Charlie Morton, for one win and explored their identity to the fullest by conducting a pitch-perfect bullpen game in Game 4. Their scattershot offense came alive at (gulp) the Trop while they stepped up their defense.
With the Rays separated from the ALCS by just one more Cy Young contender, it’s time to issue a warning: Tampa Bay is no joke as these Rays actually get stronger as the postseason goes on.
When I ranked them at the bottom of my ALDS Opponents Fear Index, that stemmed from their pitching staff being far from stretched out. Though the Astros are still the better team, the Rays surpass the Twins, A’s and Indians in their abilities later in October. I’ll also readily admit I underestimated the team.
Despite needing Tyler Glasnow to pitch Game 5, Tampa would have Morton on full rest for Game 1 of the ALCS if he isn’t needed in relief. He’d be followed by reigning Cy Young winner Blake Snell in Game 2. Snell, despite getting a save out of the bullpen in Game 4, is about as stretched out as Luis Severino was at the end of the regular season.
Glasnow, meanwhile, is nearing full strength. The right-hander should be good for about 85-90 pitches in ALDS Game 5 and looks the same as he did before his arm injury sidelined him in May. At that time, he’d staked a claim as the early Cy Young favorite before succombing to injury against the Yankees. He’s a young power pitcher with the potential to be a thorn in the Yankees’ side for years to come.
Beyond their three starters, the Rays have the only bullpen that stacks up near the Yankees in October. After all, Tampa has beaten the Yankees with a bullpen game before and just held Houston to one run on the biggest stage. Kevin Cash might need to ride that bullpen heavy again in Game 5, so their freshness for the ALCS is undetermined.
Whether than bullpen can hold up against the Yankees’ top lineup or in a seven-game series remains to be seen. The Rays have to get there first, but they’ve earned plenty of respect just for forcing a Game 5 in Houston. As much as this blog has clowned them in recent months, they are a legitimate contender now.