Devotees of Tim Marchman’s excellent baseball writing for the now defunct New York Sun will be pleased to know he’s contributing work of equal caliber to Slate, with a most recent entry concerning the 2008 American League Champions. “A preference for pitching, defense, and the home run, the very strategy preached by crusty old-school manager Earl Weaver, doesn’t quite qualify the Rays as baseball avant-gardists,” writes Marchman, who hails Joe Maddon’s strategic acumen just the same.
The secret of the Rays’ success could be found on the mound at the end of Game 7. A veteran of five major league games coming into the playoffs, David Price came on in the eighth inning with his team up by two, the bases loaded, and J.D. Drew, hero of Game 5, at the plate. (No pressure, kid!) Price struck out Drew, set down three in a row after walking the leadoff man in the ninth, and ended up at the bottom of a big dog pile.
Bringing on a kid who’s pitched fewer innings in his career than Leon Cadore of the Brooklyn Robins did in one game in 1920 is nothing you’ll find in baseball’s infamous book. Nor is a fair amount of what the Rays do. After Game 5, everyone wanted to know exactly why Maddon had left in right-handed relievers Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler to face lefties Drew and David Ortiz; Maddon said in so many words that a good pitcher is a good pitcher, and that Balfour and Wheeler are his best guys, however things happened to work out. What’s the common bond here? Going with your best players”regardless of what hand they throw with or how many innings they’ve thrown in the big leagues”no matter if baseball orthodoxy would tell you otherwise. This shows an almost disturbing tendency toward common sense.
Look at the Rays on the field, and this strange reasonableness abounds. Ace pitcher Scott Kazmir and catcher Dioner Navarro were thought by many to be too small to succeed in the majors despite having great minor league numbers; the Rays decided to let them prove they couldn’t succeed, and lo and behold neither did. Right fielder Rocco Baldelli can’t play a full game because of a rare disease that keeps him from expending too much energy; the Rays play him as long as he can go and then swap in a caddy. Upton couldn’t handle shortstop in the minors, committing dozens of errors a year; the Rays shrugged and moved him to center, where he’s been brilliant. Pena was a solid first baseman with Detroit for years before somehow managing to wash out on both the Red Sox and Yankees in 2006; the Rays figured the accumulated weight of his career counted for more than one bad campaign, installed him as the starter, and watched him hit 77 home runs over the last two years.