Underestimate Rays at your own risk - NBC Sports

Underestimate Rays at your own risk
Developing their own players and relying on defensive matchups, Tampa keeps defying expectations
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James Shields, who makes $7 million a year, heads the game's best five-man rotation for Tampa.
April 12, 2012, 6:04 pm

Down 2-0. Held to one lousy single through eight innings. Dominated in only 81 pitches by reigning AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander. The definition of bleak, right?

Then the Rays bat around without an extra-base hit against Verlander and two relievers in the top of the ninth, and win 4-2.

When are we going to learn? Never doubt the Rays. We wonder how they do it, but we really shouldn't anymore.

Operating on one of the game's tiniest budgets, they've won a pennant, two division titles and made three playoff appearances in the past four seasons, fueled by wins like the one that silenced Comerica Park.

The Rays simply know how to win, despite limitations everybody else thinks should prevent them from doing so.

We saw them pull off a remarkable 31-game improvement, last-place-to-AL pennant in 2008 on a $43 million budget.

With virtually the same payroll, they went on a 17-8 run and snuck into the playoffs as the wild-card team last September, with the help of a huge collapse from the Red Sox, of course.

They've averaged 92 wins over the past four seasons, and are headed to that vicinity this season. This shouldn't surprise us any more.

Forced by budgetary restrictions into a grow-their-own player development formula, the Rays have mastered it. Two more shining examples will play their first full big-league seasons in 2012: Matt Moore and Desmond Jennings.

The Rays will be led by arguably the game's best five-man rotation - all homegrown - at a combined cost of just under $14.6 million, or one elite-level starter: James Shields ($7 million), David Price ($4.35 million), Jeremy Hellickson ($490,000), Moore ($1 million), Jeff Niemann ($1.75 million).

The Tigers spent $214 million to sign Prince Fielder and are 5-1 after winning Thursday. The Rays signed Carlos Pena ($7 million), Luke Scott ($6 million), Fernando Rodney ($2 million), Jose Molina ($1.8 million) and Jeff Keppinger ($1.525 million), and they were 4-2 after six games, leading the AL East. With B.J. Upton, Kyle Farnsworth and Sam Fuld on the disabled list.

This year's Rays payroll is all the way up to a whopping $63 million. Forced to flush out the roster with bargain-basement players, they find ones who possess isolated skills that can help win games.

And no organization employs cutting-edge statistical metrics to their advantage both offensively and defensively better than the Rays. They consistently are among the game's elite defensive teams, and nobody shifts defenders into unconventional alignments more often. Is there a correlation? You bet.

The overall numbers tell us the Rays' offense doesn't score enough, yet twice in just six games this season, they've come back against two of the best pitchers in the game: Verlander and Mariano Rivera, who was victimized with a blown save on Opening Day.

On Wednesday, they ground out a string of quality at-bats in the top of the ninth by adjusting to Verlander's over-reliance on the fastball, then Ben Zobrist delivered a clutch two-run single off Jose Valverde.

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In the season's first handful of games, manager Joe Maddon - relying on matchups tendencies - has masterminded things this way:

Matt Joyce hit ninth in the season-opener against CC Sabathia and struck out four times. The next game, Joyce was in the cleanup spot against Hiroki Kuroda. The result? Three hits including a home run, and two RBIs.

In the middle of their four-run rally Wednesday, Joyce - in the cleanup spot - was pinch-hit for by backup infielder Elliot Johnson, who drew a key walk against Daniel Schlereth.

Keppinger hit cleanup Thursday, while Pena consistently has hit second despite his historically low batting average, and already has three home runs.

In the Detroit series, the Rays employed a full infield shift (three on the left side) against Tigers shortstop Jhonny Peralta, even though nobody else in the AL does. They even did it in the fifth inning Wednesday, when the Tigers had two runners on base - a situation in which nearly everybody else backs off the shift and plays things more straight-up to improve double-play chances.

Of course, it worked, as Peralta hit a hard grounder that would have gone through a conventional infield alignment for a single, but second baseman Sean Rodriguez was there to snag it and flip to shortstop Reid Brignac, who came over from the hole to second base for a force out.

A pronounced shift against Fielder also worked Thursday, with Evan Longoria - basically playing shortstop - going up the middle to take away a single.

All part of how the Rays play. And win.

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