Rays Headed To ALCS

The Tampa Bay Rays are headed to the ALCS. Backed by B.J. Upton's two homers and the continued excellence of the bullpen, the Rays are only four victories away from the World Series.

The Tampa Bay Rays are going to the American League Championship Series.

Read the sentence again if you must, but it is absolutely true. The Rays continued their remarkable journey on Monday night by defeating the Chicago White Sox, 6-4, to win the first postseason series in their franchise history and advance to the next round.

And what a ride it has been, as the once lowly Tampa Bay organization is now only four victories away from reaching the World Series.

B.J. Upton, a target of criticism among many Rays fans for his apparent lack of hustle at times, led the way in Game 4. Upton hit homers in his first two at-bats, helping to chase Chicago starter Gavin Floyd from the game after three innings. The talented center fielder hit only nine home runs in the regular season, as he was bothered by a shoulder injury that will require surgery this offseason, but appears to be regaining his power stroke at the right time.

Carlos Pena also had a strong night for Tampa Bay, delivering a big run-scoring single with two outs in the fifth, and then scoring Jason Bartlett on a single in the seventh. Pena, who turned it around after the All-Star break to end the year as the Rays' team leader with 31 home runs and second on the squad with an .871 OPS, finished the game 3-for-4 with a walk.

Overall, the top three hitters in the Tampa Bay lineup combined to go 7-for-13 with four RBIs.

As has been the case all season, though, the real story lies in the pitching.

Andy Sonnanstine continued to shine by relying more on pitching smarts than stuff, scattering three hits and two earned runs in 5.2 solid innings of work. Sonnanstine surrendered solo home runs to Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye, but only walked one batter while striking out four. Pitching on ten days' rest, the crafty right-hander continued to do what he has done all along—keep his team in the game.

As was the case in the first two games of the series at Tropicana Field and all season, the Rays' bullpen came up huge to help maintain Sonnanstine's early lead.

J.P. Howell came on in relief of Sonnanstine in the sixth, and tossed 1.1 scoreless innings to preserve his perfect streak in the postseason. Howell, who finally found his niche in a long relief role after failing as a starter, registered three holds in the ALDS as he has continued his breakout campaign. During the regular season, he posted a 2.22 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 89.1 innings pitched as one of the most valuable pieces to a much-improved Tampa Bay relief corps.

Then there was Grant Balfour, who tossed two no-hit, scoreless innings to preserve the four-hitter. Balfour, whose mid-90s fastball is absolutely dominant at times, is another example of a no-name reliever on the Rays who has emerged to solidify the backend of the bullpen that has had its fair share of question marks after injuries and ineffectiveness became an issue for Troy Percival. The last cut in spring training, he posted a 1.54 ERA and .143 opponents' batting average and .462 OPS after getting recalled from Triple-A Durham. He struck out Ken Griffey Jr. to end the game, setting off a raucous celebration at US Cellular Field.

It is hard to imagine where the Rays would be without the surprise relief pair, and it is fitting how they combined to hold onto the lead in the clincher of the first playoff bid in franchise history.

And, just like that, the AL East-champion Rays move on, and the Maddon team philosophy of 9=8 automatically becomes 9=4. The Rays, however, will now be faced with their biggest challenge yet, as they head home to face the Wild-Card-winner and their budding rival, the Boston Red Sox. Although the Rays get homefield advantage for the ALCS--a huge bonus, as the Rays finished the year with the best winning percentage at home in the AL and took two series from Boston there--the Red Sox have excellent pitching in their own right and several dangerous hitters.

Like each time before, though, do not expect the Rays to back down.

Rays Links

The Rays really know how to celebrate, writes Jim Caple.

Upton has had to fight through adversity, writes John Romano.

Bring on the Red Sox, writes Gary Shelton.

Sonnanstine just wins, writes Joe Smith.

Carl Crawford was struck in the face by a bat prior to the game, but all is OK, writes Marc Topkin.

Strong management has the Rays headed to the ALCS, writes Ken Rosenthal. I could not agree more with Rosenthal in the article. Certainly, the Rays have had the luxury of picking early in several drafts in the past decade as a direct result of years of unprecedented losing. But, as Rosenthal mentions, look at the Pirates, the Royals, and nearly every other perennial-losing, small-market team.

Shrewd management, led by genius general manager Andrew Friedman, is the major reason for the dramatic turnaround, and why the Rays can compete in the most competitive division in the majors without a large payroll while the aforementioned teams cannot in their respective divisions. Friedman and his staff, using advanced statistical analysis, are able to buy low and sell high as well as nearly every baseball ops group in the industry. He is able to find inefficiencies in the market for baseball players, and built this team on defense and pitching. The result? After shoring up the infield by trading for Jason Bartlett, making the decision to move Iwamura to second base and moving Longoria along at the right pace, the Rays made the jump from worst-to-first in team defensive efficiency--the rate at which balls put into play are converted into outs.

The Delmon Young trade, which was criticized at the time, now looks like a no-brainer. Young continued to struggle with his approach, finishing the season with only 10 home runs and a poor .741 OPS for a left fielder in his debut season with the Minnesota Twins. The Rays, in fact, received better production on the corner outfield spots from a group of no-name, undervalued outfielders. And with an overcrowded outfield, the Twins are already reportedly looking to shop him on the trade market. Score one, or two, for Friedman.

And Bartlett, though he did not deserve to be voted Team MVP, was invaluable with his defense out at shortstop. Then there is the centerpiece of the deal, Matt Garza, who went 11-7 with a 3.70 ERA and 1.24 WHIP and can dominate as much as any pitcher in the sport on any given outing.

And with the improved defense and surprise turnaround in the bullpen, Tampa Bay only allowed 671 runs. The previous year, that total was closer to 1,000. The Rays are living proof that payroll is not an issue for any club, as long as they have cost-effective, progressive management. With Friedman and the Sternberg group--who picked the right time to get out of WallStreet--at the helm, this organization is only going to get better, too.

Inside The ALDS

The Rays posted a team line of .297/.351/.507, for an .858 OPS, in the four-game series. Granted, it is a small sample size, but Maddon has to be happy that his team put up 21 runs. Just like the regular season, though, the key was excellent run prevention rather than an overpowering offense. Tampa Bay pitchers limited the Chicago offense to a slash stats mark of .236/.298/.362, with the Rays outscoring the White Sox (13 runs) by eight runs.

Upton played a big part, picking up 16 total bases and posting a 1.205 OPS. He hit .278/.316/.889 in the short set of games, with a series-best three homers.

Pena collected five hits in 10 at-bats, but did not collect an extra-base hit or score. Longoria led the Rays to a Game 1 win by hitting two long bombs into the seats in a 3-for-4, three RBI day, but ended the series going 1-for-11. Still, he was one of five Tampa Bay regulars to finish the, albeit in a small sample size, the first round with a plus-.1000 OPS--Upton, Akinori Iwamura (.389/.421/.722, .1143), Pena and Dioner Navarro (1.038) being the others.

Pitching-wise, not a single Tampa Bay starter made it out of the seventh inning.

But, with such an incredible bullpen performance (Dan Wheeler was the only reliever to allow a run) in the series, this was not an issue.

Howell was perhaps the MVP of the series, tossing 4.1 scoreless innings in meaningful spots to help the Rays preserve leads in each win. Balfour and Chad Bradford combined to throw 6.1 scoreless innings as well, allowing only three hits.

Anything can happen in a short series, but it definitely helps to have a bullpen like that, which should be an advantage for Tampa Bay in the ALCS. While Boston has one of the best closers in the majors, Jonathan Papelbon, the Rays closer-by-committee scenario has worked just fine all summer. It should be an interesting battle for the AL title.

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