09/29/11 9:28 PM ET
Pitching, defense help boost Rays' offense
Jennings, Upton put pressure on pitchers when they reach base
By Bill Chastain / MLB.com
The Rays scored just 13 runs on 37 hits in last year's ALDS. And in the three games Tampa Bay lost, it scored just two runs on 14 hits.
Granted, Cliff Lee -- who'll be trying to help the Phillies advance in the postseason this year -- was responsible for two of the Rangers' wins in Games 1 and 5, but this year's Game 1 starter, C.J. Wilson, did top them in Game 2.
Once again Tampa Bay arrives to the playoffs with an offense that is far from stellar in a conventional sense. The Rays have a .244 average with 172 home runs and 707 runs scored -- almost 100 less than they scored in 2010. So the AL Wild Card winners should be concerned, right?
Anybody who believes that idea hasn't met manager Joe Maddon, who noted the obvious about the Rays by saying, pitching and defense, "that's who we are."
"Every night we take the field, we believe we have a chance based on our starting pitching," Maddon said. "There's nothing worse than taking the field and knowing you have a great disadvantage on the mound. That's really a bad feeling, that's when you are really in trouble. So every night we feel like we have a chance to win the baseball game based on our starting pitching, period."
While the Rays' offense might pale in comparison to some of the stronger squads in the AL, particularly in the AL East, the numbers tell the story that their offense is good enough given their prevention of runs. And that comes down to pitching and playing good defense. Opposing teams have hit 10 points lower than Tampa Bay, scored almost 100 runs less and drew 67 fewer walks.
Wilson, who went 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA in three starts against the Rays this season, respects the way Tampa Bay's offense plays the game and knows he can't take his success for granted.
"Every run is really important," Wilson said, "and a team like Tampa that has the chaos offense, where they bunt and run and do a lot of stuff, they are going to be very active. Obviously we know that. They steal bases and sometimes swing at the first pitch. Sometimes they squeeze."
Even though Tampa Bay's offensive numbers suggest otherwise, B.J. Upton doesn't believe the Rays swung the bats as well in 2010 as they have this season.
"We've swung the bat well, but a lot of times they just haven't fallen in," Upton said. "
Upton could be one of the keys to the Rays having offensive success in this year's playoffs. Maddon believes that Upton craves playing in the spotlight, and the glare doesn't get any brighter than it does during the postseason. And there's good reason to believe Maddon will be correct where Upton is concerned. Upton hit .261 with five home runs and 15 RBIs in September 2010, but he enters the ALDS after hitting .333 with five home runs and 20 RBIs this month.
"B.J. is the guy that really for me has put this thing all together," Maddon said. "By hitting him in the two-hole, all of a sudden better at-bats, more patient at the plate, accepting of his walks, driving the ball to all fields. All these things started to happen in the two-hole. Probably because he may be seeing a more consistent or better pitch hitting in front of [Evan Longoria]. That may have something to do with it, too."
Another big difference for Tampa Bay this season is the presence of Desmond Jennings. The athletic outfielder has given the Rays a leadoff hitter with speed, a disciplined eye and a surprising amount of power.
"Hopefully I can get things started [against Texas]," Jennings said. "Get on base and put some pressure on the pitcher -- like B.J. and Longo and the guys behind me.
"We know we have guys who can hit, who can run and get on base, hit the ball out of the ballpark. Our starting pitching is just that good. People don't think about our offense winning games, at the same time we can put up some runs. And hopefully we can get off to a good start tomorrow."
Tampa Bay has won 30 consecutive games when scoring five runs or more, which is a nice statistic that personifies how little the offense must do in order to support the starting pitching. And Maddon understands that in order to mint those five runs, they can't sit around and wait for it to happen.
"We have to take our chances. We can't be conservative," Maddon said. "We can't all of a sudden try to do things differently because we're here. Right now, it's time to press it even more. I know our guys buy into that philosophy, but it really goes back to pitching and defense and timely hitting."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.