Note: this post is part one of a week-long series highlighting the rooting interest of each of the four teams in MLB’s League Championship Series.
They’ve played 23 seasons since arriving in the 1998 expansion, and finished under .500 in 14 of them. They have three A.L. East titles and nine last place finishes. They made one World Series cameo then lost four consecutive division series, until this year. They have finished bottom-six in MLB payroll 18 times, but still managed to make the playoffs in five of those years. They’re the Tampa Bay Rays, and don’t you even think about associating them with the devil.
The NBA season is over, and October baseball is reaching its peak. Looking for a team to root for as the World Series approaches? Here’s the case for the A.L. East Champion Rays.
1. “The Stable”
Back on Sept. 1, Rays manager Kevin Cash responded to the Aroldis Chapman incident by saying that he has “a whole damn stable full of guys that throw 98 miles per hour.” It was a comment of questionable prudence, given the tension of the moment, but here’s the thing—he wasn’t wrong. The Rays have built their reputation on taking under-valued or discarded arms and turning them into weaponizable assets out of the bullpen.
Here’s a few of the big “horses” in that Rays stable: Nick Anderson, Peter Fairbanks, Jose Alvarado and Diego Castillo all had an average fastball velocity of 95.5 mph or higher this year (you know, the kind of heat that makes the little flames pop up on the Fox Sports graphic). Add in guys like John Curtiss, Ryan Thompson, and Aaron Loup each of whom also finished top-60 among A.L. relievers in K/9 this season, and Cash has a murderer’s row of guys you’ve never heard of who can light you up at any given time.
They’re not household names, and their usage is anything but conventional (12 different players have recorded a save this year). But it’s a fun dynamic that will be especially interesting to watch this week in a seven-game series with no off days.
2. Randy Motherf****** Arozarena
The Rays lineup, much like their pitching staff, is full of highly-flexible mismatched parts. Case in point: last month, they famously sent out the first all-lefty lineup in MLB history in a game against the Red Sox. But the shiniest of those parts in 2020 has been Randy Arozarena, the rookie outfielder from Cuba who exploded on to the scene this year seemingly out of nowhere. He hit for a 1.022 OPS in the regular season, and through Sunday’s game (when he hit his fourth home run in the past week) he’s batting .419 with a whopping 1.406 OPS in the playoffs.
Not only does Arozarena have a cool name, but he has a cool story too. If you have 10 minutes to spare in your day, I highly recommend reading this piece from Juan Toribio of MLB.com on his rise to stardom from the streets of Havana to drifting in the Gulf of Mexico as a defector to hitting in the three-hole for the Rays on the American League’s biggest stage. Oh, and he has lucky cowboy boots. How can you not root for this guy?
3. Reformed Pirates
If you’re a Reds fan, it’s likely you get joy from watching the division rival Pittsburgh Pirates suffer. And if you don’t, just trust me, they deserve it. Well, there’s no better walking reminder of that suffering for Bucs fans than the Rays, who have a roster full of successful ex-swashbucklers.
It starts with young ace Tyler Glasnow, who was acquired two years ago in the fateful Chris Archer trade. All he’s done this year is post a 3.66 FIP, .199 opponent BA, and the second-best K% (38.2) in all of baseball, behind only Shane Bieber. He’s joined in the rotation by ageless wonder Charlie Morton, the 36-year-old lefty who spent seven years floundering in Pittsburgh before reviving his career with the Astros in 2017. Since joining Tampa Bay last year, Morton has gone 18-8 with a 3.33 ERA, and finished third in the Cy Young balloting last season. He started game two today (allowing no runs), while Glasnow is expected to take the mound for game four on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, on the offensive side, the Rays typically feature versatile slugger Austin Meadows in the leadoff spot. A 2019 All-Star, Meadows was originally drafted ninth overall by the Pirates in 2013, only to be gifted to the Rays in the same trade as Glasnow. On Friday, he hit the game-tying home run that ultimately helped them outlast the Yankees 2-1 and advance. Sorry, Pirates (but not really).
BONUS POINTS: If you’re into Call of Duty, you can follow LHP Blake Snell on Twitch.