Can the Rays go all the way?
MORE BARK OR BITE?
Editor's note: Throughout August, ESPN.com will take a close look at various teams in the hunt for a playoff spot to assess whether they have what it takes to survive the dog days of August and remain in contention come October.
At the bottom of the page, each team will receive a dog bone rating based on our overall analysis: five bones = serious postseason contender; four bones = good contender; three bones = average contender; two bones = poor contender; one bone = no contender.
If any contender has co-big dogs, it's the Rays, blessed as they are with Evan Longoria and Carl Crawford. But forced to choose, we'll go with Longoria if only because everyone knows he'll be a Ray again next season (Crawford, not so much). Oh, and because the Rays know exactly what they're going to get from Longoria. In three seasons, he's been an All-Star three times, he's probably going to win another Gold Glove this season, and at 24 he's already a perennial MVP candidate.-- Rob Neyer, SweetSpot Blog Network
If everyone just keeps playing exactly as they have, the Rays are a great bet to make the playoffs. Which is to say, the Rays could fare perfectly well with Opening Day starter James Shields and his 4.98 ERA. But that ERA is the worst of Shields' career, due largely to the 28 home runs he's given up this season. Shields is still a fine pitcher, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio this season is right in line with his career mark. But if he wants to keep his "Big Game James" nickname, he'll have to keep the ball in the park come October.-- Rob Neyer, SweetSpot Blog Network
The biggest key to the Rays' 2010 success has been a starting rotation that, at times, has resembled the likes of the 1986 Mets in depth, and a bullpen that has been, at times, as formidable as the one that took the team to the World Series two years ago. The Rays went 32-12 on the strength of a 2.87 ERA, and after a brief midseason hiccup, have rebounded to put themselves in position to be a yearlong contender in the AL East.
Tampa Bay's starting rotation has remained intact, with no starter missing a start until August, and when the Rays went to a sixth starter, rookie Jeremy Hellickson starred, becoming the first pitcher in the modern era to open his career with three straight starts of six or more innings, allowing three hits or fewer in each.
No. 1 draft pick David Price looks like a formidable Cy Young Award candidate in replacing James Shields as the staff ace. Matt Garza became the first pitcher in Rays history to throw a no-hitter. Jeff Niemann, despite low strikeout totals, has found ways to win until recently being sidelined with an injury.
Tampa Bay's pickup of Rafael Soriano may end up ranking as one of baseball's best moves this offseason. Soriano has given the Rays the true closer they've lacked in recent seasons, netting 33 saves in his first 35 opportunities. The key to that success has been Soriano's ability to avoid the home run -- he's allowed only three in 45 2/3 innings.
Rays' bullpen: 2010
Joaquin Benoit has replaced injured J.P. Howell as the team's eighth-inning setup man. Considered an afterthought when initially acquired, Benoit has 19 holds, a 1.24 ERA and an 0.62 WHIP, one that rates just ahead of Mariano Rivera for best in the major leagues. The four relievers they use the most in key situations -- Soriano, Benoit, Grant Balfour, and Dan Wheeler -- are all strike-throwers. All four have K/BB rates of better than 3-1. And each of the three relievers Joe Maddon used in Sunday's win over the Orioles also had a sub-1.00 WHIP.
Early in the season, much of the Rays' success was predicated on putting up amazing numbers with runners in scoring position, but those stats have since regressed to middle of the pack in the majors. Big hits from unexpected sources (John Jaso ranked among the team's leaders in win probability added at one point) were a big storyline early on, and one that still perks up from time to time.
Offensively, the Rays win by getting on base any way they can (they average 4.2 walks per game) and by putting pressure on opposing defenses. Their 140 steals are the most in the majors and the team's success rate is a robust 79.5 percent.
But perhaps most important, through the rest of the regular season and into October, is that the Rays have shown no fear in matching up with the Yankees, winning six of the 11 meetings this season, including three of five in Yankee Stadium. The first four victories came with the bats (37 runs scored in those wins), while the last two came on the mound, with masterful performances from Shields and youngster Wade Davis.
To get to the World Series, the Rays will have to likely beat the Yankees, either in the division standings or in the playoffs (perhaps both), and they've shown so far that they're right there with the Rangers in terms of being a good matchup for the defending champs.
-- Mark Simon, ESPN Stats & Info blog