Let's all, as fans of the American game, ponder the ramifications of what we just saw: The Tampa Bay Rays are going to the World Series. And Randy Arozarena was the MVP of an American League Championship Series with Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, George Springer and Zack Greinke.
While we wait to see who emerges from another Game 7 on Sunday when the Los Angeles Dodgers take on the Atlanta Braves in Texas, we want to acknowledge that in a year of a pandemic, we are close to a World Series. It will happen. It didn't seem possible for so long.
Next, let's acknowledge that anyone who picked the rays to win the AL pennant before the shortened season started in July was spot on. (This writer wasn't one of them. Thank you, Yankees.) But let's also reconsider the reasons we chose the rays back then, as these were on full display this postseason. There was a lot to see in this long postseason.
"You might think of a 60-game season, you come into the postseason and it's just not the same," said Charlie Morton, Rays Game 7 starter. "But I've had on every team we've played this postseason looked across the field and I know the guys we played against. They care, they want to win. Probably more this year than any other year. The motivation is to do this for every team. " other."
The prophesied love for Tampa Bay had more to do with the Rays' pitching operation than with their beating. With the Rays having had a decentralized crowd-sourcing pitching structure for many years, they seemed well suited for the hectic 60-game campaign that we ended up with. Starters would not be set up. Nobody would really be built up. A club with exceptional pitching depth and a plan for different pitcher uses would be well positioned.
If that doesn't sound like the rays, it doesn't do anything. Sure enough, when the ALCS turned out, Tampa Bay's organizational approach turned out to be moment-by-moment proof-of-concept.
"The way we've just gained talent through our little leagues and trades is amazing, what (General Manager) Erik Neander and the Front Office have done," said Kevin Kiermaier. "It really is. They put together a great roster, and that's why our talent and depth is what it is. If I have said anything, it's that there are people who can take out the hot-beating Astros." "
Right, but you have to score too. The problem for the Rays offensive was that their most productive players were non-productive during the regular season in the playoffs – including Brandon Lowe, Joey Wendle, Willy Adames and Michael Brosseau. So others stepped up, including the normally easy hitting catcher Mike Zunino and the semi-regular outfielder Manny Margot.
But nobody embodied the next-man-up dynamic of the rays more than Arozarena.
Ashley Landis / AP Photo
Arozarena broke into the majors last season and raked – for St. Louis. He had an OPS of .891 in just 19 games and had no hits in the playoffs on four record appearances. Then he was traded along with Jose Martinez (traded since) for pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore.
Well, the players are in the major leagues, right? Arozarena looked fine for St. Louis during its short stint, but sometimes players look good in short stints and are flipped because their original team knows why that success will be fleeting. The only problem is that once the Rays inquire about a player, they have proven time and time again that your best answer should probably be "no thanks". Because if the rays like your player, there is something you should be very fond of.
"I wouldn't say I was chasing MVP," Arozarena said through an interpreter. "I was just trying to do everything for the team."
He almost did it. This is not to pound the cardinals, though over the years it may be impossible not to. But who could have imagined that Arozarena would do what he's doing this postseason?
Look, players are getting hot streaks. It happens all the time and when a player rolls a throw they don't necessarily have to go to Cooperstown. Post-season series are by definition a parade of small sample sizes. So they believe there will always be plenty of unsung heroes to populate playoff tales.
However, what Arozarena did is not normal. It's not a routine. Others have gotten as hot as they did the postseason, but if you have any idea of baseball history, his name will jump off the list of hottest postseason and catch your eye. Only Barry Bonds (1.559 in 2002), Carlos Beltran (1.557 in 2004), Paul Molitor (1.378 in 1993), and Alex Rodriguez (1,308) in 2009).
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Then there is Arozarena. One of these names is not like the others.
"Since I've been traded, it feels like family," said Arozarena. "They welcomed me with open arms and gave me the freedom to be who I want to be."
But these are the rays. Just ask Zunino, who returned home again in Game 7 and was picked up by the Mariners in a zero-buzz trade last year. Just ask Austin Meadows, Pittsburgh rescued from potential bust status. Ask Manny Margot, who has just dominated a series that played on the Padres' home field – the club that sent him away last winter.
There are so many similar stories. The common denominator is a lesson that sounds easy, but if it really were, every team would have learned it. The lesson the Rays learned is that when you focus on what a player can do rather than what they can't and you enable them to do what they are good at, this player can excel. When you as a team surround that player with other players who do complementary things well, it makes a good baseball team. Granted, none of this is fodder for a sexy World Series teaser. But damn it, it sure is effective.
"Man, it feels great," said Zunino. "This is beyond my wildest dreams here. I am extremely grateful. This group of people, this organization, what we had to endure this year. It is a special group."
Aside from the aspect of everyone doing their part, there is the machinations of manager Kevin Cash, who is kind of an oddly avid Vulcan when it comes to building logics. He speaks in a no-ego, it's all about the playing style of a successful college World Series coach advocating for potential recruits. But he's also a ruthless believer in the actuarial side of the game, following the best of analytical practices as if he had the dead emotional life of Spock.
To the dismay of baseball lifters, his interpretation of quantitative principles is consistently spot on. It happened again in the clincher.
Charlie Morton, the veteran Rays starter who played a key role in the 2017 Astros Championship, was in his game. After five innings, he had retired 13 Houston hitters and used only 49 pitches. No Rays Pitcher has thrown an entire game since May 14, 2016 when Matt Andriese did, but could it happen again? Why should you remove Morton's dominance and minimum pitch?
After beating Josh Reddick on three fields to start sixth, Morton went to Martin Maldonado on four fields. Springer rolled into a forceout. Altuve singled, but it was an infield chopper that was perfectly placed. Morton was on 66 fields and while there was traffic on the bases he still looked like a thrower in charge of the game.
So of course Cash brought him out. And of course it was the right move.
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"The thought of getting him, I think we have to stay in tune with what we think is the right decision," said Cash. "That doesn't mean (the decisions) aren't difficult. They sure are. We're so grateful to Charlie Morton for what he brings to our club on the field and definitely in the clubhouse."
Nick Anderson – the closer to the rays – escaped the traffic jam in the sixth inning. He did just that, then hit the seventh, and when he left for Pete Fairbanks, he had six outs. Fairbanks got the last four. In total, the Rays only threw 114 pitches in the game, which was Morton's ability if he had kept his distance. But that's not how these rays do things.
Now the rays are in the World Series. Just like 2008, the other Tampa Bay pennant season, there will be plenty of research into how a no-star team with an absolute payroll can land in the World Series.
These exams are worth doing, but ultimately they will be empty. The rays succeed because they have to. You can apply the same principles and use the same methods and input the same numbers, but you probably can't find the same answer. Because you are not the rays.
The Rays don't have superstars. You have a list full of excellent baseball players, even if a lot of the players on that list weren't as special when they worked for someone else. It's like Rooting for Ants or a Rotten Tomatoes Score or All-Star Game Voting.
Keep this in mind when the Rays are up against the Dodgers or the Braves in the World Series. You could scan their list and wonder how this team of drones could end up in the Fall Classic. Do not do it. The rays are the collective wisdom of the baseball masses.
"We believe in our process," said Cash. "And we will continue to do so."