Let us all, as fans of America’s game, mull over the ramifications of what we have just seen: The Tampa Bay Rays are going to the World Series. And Randy Arozarena was the MVP of an American League Championship Series that featured Alex Bregman, Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, George Springer and Zack Greinke.
Even as we wait to see who emerges from another Game 7 on Sunday, when the Los Angeles Dodgers face the Atlanta Braves in Texas, let’s acknowledge how in the year of a pandemic, we are on the cusp of a World Series. It’s going to happen. For so long, that didn’t seem possible.
Next, let’s acknowledge that everyone who picked the Rays to win the AL pennant before the shortened season began in July was spot-on. (This writer was not one of them. Thanks, Yankees.) But let’s also revisit the rationale for picking the Rays back then, because that has been on full display throughout this postseason. A lot has been on display during this long postseason.
“You might think a 60-game season, you get to the postseason and it’s just not the same,” Rays Game 7 starter Charlie Morton said. “But I have looked across the dugout in every team we played this postseason, and I know the guys we were playing, they care, they want to win. Probably more so this year than any other year. The motivation is doing it for each other.”
The forecasted love for Tampa Bay had more to do with the Rays’ pitching operation than their hitting. Because the Rays have featured a decentralized, crowd-sourced pitching structure for many years, they seemed well-suited to the frantic, 60-game campaign we ended up with. Starters wouldn’t be built up. No one, really, would be built up. So a club with exceptional pitching depth and a plan for disparate pitcher usage would be well-situated.
If that doesn’t sound like the Rays, nothing does. Sure enough, as the ALCS played out, Tampa Bay’s organizational approach emerged as a moment-by-moment proof of concept.
“The way we have just acquired talent through our minor leagues and trades, it’s incredible what [general manager] Erik Neander and the front office have done,” Kevin Kiermaier said. “It really is. They made a great roster, and that’s why our talent and depth is what it is. If I’ve said anything, it’s that if there’s any staff that can shut down the hot-hitting Astros, it’s our staff.”
True enough, but you also have to score. The issue for the Rays’ offense was that their most productive hitters during the regular season were not being productive during the playoffs — Brandon Lowe, Joey Wendle, Willy Adames and Michael Brosseau among them. So others stepped up, including usually light-hitting catcher Mike Zunino and semi-regular outfielder Manny Margot.
But no one typified the next-man-up dynamic of the Rays more than Arozarena.
Arozarena broke into the majors last season and raked — for St. Louis. He had a .891 OPS over just 19 games and went hitless in four plate appearances during the playoffs. Then he was traded, along with Jose Martinez (since dealt) in exchange for pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore.
Well, players move around the major leagues, right? Arozarena looked good during his brief stint for St. Louis, but sometimes players look good in short stints and get flipped because their original team knows why that success is going to be fleeting. The only problem is that once the Rays inquire about a player, they’ve proved time and again that your best response probably should be, “No, thank you.” Because if the Rays like your player, then there is something very much to be liked.
“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. This is not to hammer on the Cardinals, although as the years play out, perhaps it will be impossible not to do that. But who possibly could have conceived that Arozarena would be doing what he’s being doing this postseason?
Look, players get on hot streaks. It happens all the time, and when a player gets on a roll, he isn’t necessarily headed for Cooperstown. Postseason series are by definition a parade of small sample sizes, so you figure that there are always going to be plenty of unsung heroes available to populate playoff narratives.
Yet, what Arozarena has done is not normal. It’s not routine. Others have gotten as hot as he has during the postseason, but if you have any conception of baseball history, his name is going to jump of the list of hottest postseasons and poke you in the eye. Among players who put up a higher OPS than Arozarena’s 1.288 over at least 50 playoff plate appearances, you find 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).
Then there is Arozarena. One of those names is not like the others.
“Ever since I got traded over, it’s felt like a family,” Arozarena said. “They welcomed me with open arms, and they gave me the freedom to be the player I want to be.”
But that’s the Rays. Just ask Zunino, who homered again in Game 7 and was picked up in a zero-buzz trade last year from the Mariners. Just ask Austin Meadows, rescued from prospect-bust status from Pittsburgh. Ask Manny Margot, who just dominated in a series played on the home field of the Padres — the club that shipped him away last winter.
There are so many similar stories. The common denominator is a lesson that sounds simple, but if it really was, every team would have learned it. The lesson the Rays have learned is that if you focus on what a player can do, rather than what he cannot, and you put him in position to do that thing he does well, that player can excel. Then, as a team, if you surround that player with other players who do complementary things well, it all adds up a good baseball team. Granted, none of this is fodder for a sexy World Series teaser. But, damn, it sure is effective.
“Man, it feels awesome,” Zunino said. “This is beyond my wildest dreams here. I feel extremely grateful. This group of guys, this organization, what we had to endure this year. It is a special group.”
Beyond the everybody-does-his-part aspect of the playing roster, there are the machinations of manager Kevin Cash, who is a kind of oddly enthusiastic Vulcan as dugout logicians go. He speaks in the no-ego, it’s all-about-the-players style of a successful College World Series coach putting on a front for potential recruits. But he’s also a merciless adherent to the actuarial side of the game, following best analytic practices as if he had the dead emotional life of Spock.
Time and again, to the consternation of baseball lifers, his interpretation of quantitative principles is spot-on. It happened again in the clincher.
Charlie Morton, the veteran Rays starter who played a key role in the Astros’ 2017 championship, was on his game. After five innings, he had retired 13 straight Houston hitters and used just 49 pitches. No Rays pitcher has thrown a complete game since May 14, 2016, when Matt Andriese did it, but could it happen again? After all, given Morton’s dominance and minimal pitch count, why would you remove him?
After striking out Josh Reddick on three pitches to start the sixth, Morton walked Martin Maldonado on four pitches. Springer rolled into a forceout. Altuve singled, but it was an infield chopper that was perfectly placed. Morton was at 66 pitches, and while there was traffic on the bases, he still looked like a pitcher in command of the game.
So, of course, Cash took him out. And, of course, it was the right move.
“The thought to go get him, I think we need to stay consistent with what we think is the right decision,” Cash said. “That is not to say [the decisions] are not tough. They certainly are. We’re just so appreciative of Charlie Morton, what he brings to our club on the field and definitely in the clubhouse.”
Nick Anderson — the Rays’ closer — came on to escape that sixth-inning jam. He did just that, then pitched the seventh, and by the time he exited for Pete Fairbanks, he’d gotten six outs. Fairbanks got the last four. Overall, the Rays threw just 114 pitches in the game, easily within Morton’s capability had he been left in to go the distance. But that’s not how these Rays do things.
Now the Rays are in the World Series. Just like in 2008, the other Tampa Bay pennant season, there are going to be numerous examinations about how a no-star team with a rock-bottom payroll can end up in the World Series.
Those examinations are worth conducting, but ultimately, they are going to come up empty. The Rays succeed because they have to. You can apply the same principles and follow the same methods and crunch the same numbers, but you probably can’t come up with the same answer. Because you’re not the Rays.
The Rays do not have superstars. They have a roster full of excellent baseball players, even if a lot of players on that list weren’t that special when they toiled for someone else. It’s like rooting for ants, or a Rotten Tomatoes score, or the All-Star Game voting.
Keep that in mind when the Rays match up in the World Series against the Dodgers or the Braves. You might scan their roster and wonder how that team of drones could end up in the Fall Classic. Don’t. The Rays are the collective wisdom of the baseball masses.
“We believe in our process,” Cash said. “And we will continue doing that.”