America is finally getting a closer look at the Tampa Bay Rays during the 2020 World Series, and what baseball fans are witnessing looks like nothing like the game they're used to. Tampa Bay does things differently and it often isn't pretty, but damn if it isn't effective.
The Rays played to their script Wednesday night and turned in a winning performance. The unconventional American League champions topped the Los Angeles Dodgers 6-4 in Game 2 of the World Series and proved they can go toe-to-toe with their juggernaut of an opponent. The Rays won by playing their way, which includes an unconventional style of handling pitchers, fielders and an offense without any big names. Regardless of how crazy it may seem from the outside, the formula has been tremendously successful in 2020.
Tampa's Game 2 starter was Blake Snell, a former Cy Young Award winner many viewers probably expected to go deep in the contest as long as he was effective. That's not how this team operates. Snell was pulled after 4.2 innings despite striking out nine Dodgers and only throwing 88 pitches. That's not abnormal, Snell didn't pitch six innings in any start this season. That's pretty standard for Tampa Bay. The Rays' average starter threw 71 pitches this season and was typically pulled in the fifth inning. That seems nuts, considering their roster includes guys like Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Charlie Morton.
Rays manager Kevin Cash is quick with the hook for his starters because he's got one of the finest bullpens in baseball, and arguably the deepest. The Rays' pen finished the 2020 season with a 25-11 record, a 3.37 ERA and a 1.19 WHIP. When the team's bullpen door opens, it can feel like a clown car loaded with guys who can hit the mid-90s, come from all kinds of angles, and have different types of movement. When starters leave early, they're usually replaced with someone even more effective at getting outs.
On Wednesday, Snell departed a 5-2 game, and four relievers finished the final 4.1 innings, allowing two runs and three hits while striking out six and not walking anyone. That kind of performance is what the Rays expect every night. Given how good those relievers are, Tampa feels fully comfortable going with bullpen days often. There also isn't a specific order guys arrive in. Everyone chips in, there is no definitive closer either, as 12 Rays recorded saves during the regular season.
The Rays aren't just unconventional when it comes to the bullpen. Shifts have become a huge part of baseball over the last few years, but in the postseason casual fans have been introduced to the most extreme shift in Major League Baseball. The Rays began deploying four outfielders sparingly in 2019 but began to use to strategy regularly this season. Yes, an old beer league softball trick has made its way to the World Series, as Tampa has used it several times against the Dodgers. They'll even do it with runners on base.
Conventional wisdom would say removing an infielder -- especially with runners on base -- would be nuts, but the Rays make it work.
Tampa Bay's offense also doesn't look like what you'd expect from a squad with the second-best record in baseball. During the regular season the Rays finished 21st in batting average (.238), 13th in OPS (.753), 14th in home runs (80) and 12th in runs (289). They were a middling offensive squad. Only four regular starters checked in with an OPS above .800 (Brandon Lowe, Yandy Diaz, Willy Adames, Mike Brosseau). Meanwhile, the Dodgers had four regulars over .900 and three others over .800 (Cody Bellinger just missed at .789).
Tampa has already set the MLB record for home runs in the postseason (28), but other than Randy Arozarena and Manuel Margot, no one is really having standout postseason. In fact, several reliable bats are mired in deep slumps. Everyone just seems to chip in and there are different heroes every night. In Game 2, that was Brandon Lowe, who hit two clutch opposite field home runs after struggling with his swing for weeks.
The Dodgers are what a championship team should look like. They have a huge payroll, star players and are loaded up and down the lineup. They can hit, run and field at almost every position. They have a classic young ace in Walker Buehler and a veteran all-time great in Clayton Kershaw, plus a bunch of hard-throwers and a classic bullpen structure. They're what we're used to. If they win, they'll do it with overwhelming talent.
The Rays are scrappy upstarts using scouting, statistics and innovation to outsmart their more talented competitors and level the playing field. This group of unknowns is currently going toe-to-toe with a team that's been favored to win the 2020 World Series since the final out of the 2019 season. The Dodgers should be cruising to a title this season, but Tampa Bay is standing in the way and holding its own.
The Tampa Bay Rays are relying on smarts, not star power to win baseball games. And it's working.