The Tampa Bay Rays currently sit atop the standings in the American League East, having won 11 consecutive games at Tropicana Field. And in the aftermath of a thrilling, 2-1 extra-innings victory over the New York Yankees on Tuesday night, the storylines are plentiful with this team.
Edwin Jackson, perhaps finally ready to turn the corner and harness his tremendous talent, increased his consecutive shutout innings streak to 15 in the win, holding the potent New York lineup scoreless over seven stellar frames. Though he did not get credit with the win—as, for the second time in a week, closer Troy Percival let the lead evaporate in the ninth inning—Jackson was on his game, effectively commanding his pitches in a strong overall performance.
For Percival, who has nine saves in 11 chances, it was the second blown save with Jackson in line for a win in the last six days, enabling the Yankees to tie the game at 1-all in the top of the ninth inning. The veteran reliever has been excellent—in the clubhouse and on the mound—for the Rays this spring. Yet, with one swing of the bat, Hideki Matsui put a second dent in Percival’s once-seemingly invincible armor, ending Jackson’s hope for win number three.
As rare as Percival’s one-pitch blunder, though, was the way in which the Rays ended up coming back to win the game, handing future Hall-of-Fame closer Mariano Rivera, who had not allowed an earned run coming in, his first loss of the young season.
It is May, sure, but this team has never been in first place this late in the season. In fact, Tampa Bay has usually secured its permanent place in the AL East cellar come May 1.
Backed by excellent defense and strong bullpen, these Rays are for real, and are making headlines across the country for their performance on the field.
Already having guaranteed a split in the series, the Rays will look to sweep their fourth consecutive home series over the next two nights—against the “Evil Empire,” Jonny Gomes’ words there, no less.
The news item of note surrounding this team, however, has nothing to do with its recent on-the-field success, or the Yankees series. Rather, the real story, one might argue, is the organization’s decision to sign ace left-hander Scott Kazmir to a four-year contract extension that will keep him in Tampa Bay until 2011, with a club option for 2012.
Having already locked up third base phenom Evan Longoria, slugger Carlos Pena, up-and-coming right-hander James Shields—a solid nucleus to build a team around, for sure—to long-term deals, Tampa Bay may have pulled off the steal of them all on Wednesday. Shortly before the first pitch of Wednesday night's game the organization announced that Kazmir, the American League strikeout leader in 2007, used his golden left arm for something other than pitching this morning, putting his John Hancock on an extension. The deal guarantees him $28.5 million, with a maximum value of $39.5 million.
Going into spring training, many believed that the Rays would not have the available resources to persuade Kazmir to stay. He was the one player, it seemed, whose days in St. Petersburg were numbered.
Well, for the first time in 11 years, the good news is coming in bunches for this franchise, an organization which has never won more than 70 games in a single season.
Matt Garza, the winner in the series opener, has far too much talent not to make an impact.
Jackson, perhaps, is finally on the way to establishing himself as a consistently effective starter at this level.
Shields looks more like a true ace each time that he takes the ball, especially in the friendly confines of the Trop.
And with a surplus of “stud” pitching prospects—Wade Davis, Jake McGee (each now pitching in Double-A Montgomery) and David Price—on the way, the Rays’ current lock on first place in baseball’s most competitive division may last longer than one might think.
Though winning the division is still a bit of a stretch for this year, with Kazmir and company, come 2009 and beyond, perhaps the Rays’ lease in the division—at the bottom of the standings for 10 years—needs some long-term tweaking. And, if the Rays are in first place on May 14, 2010, will it really be such a shock?
To contact Tyler Hissey, send an email to TylerHissey@gmail.com.