The casual baseball fan last year saw the Devil Rays as the perennial last place team that in its 10-year history hadn't had a winning season. For those of us that watched many games (not all, as we were still baseball package subscribers last year) , we saw something else. We saw the teams that had more 1- and 2-run losses than any other team. It was obvious there were just a couple piece of the puzzle that were missing. And despite a lack of big name trades, the Rays had the most productive off season in baseball.
Since they also had an embarrassing amount of blown saves due to a horrific bullpen and shallow starters, they went out and got a veteran closer in Troy Percival, who has the confidence and experience to save key games. They also took a chance on a couple of relief pitchers who have since shown their worth.
The Minnesota trade was key and the Rays got the better end of the deal for a few reasons. Matt Garza is doing an incredible job. As a Twins fan as well, I don't blame them for trading Garza. He looked like someone who may or may not have blossomed and could have just needed a different team or pitching coach to fit his needs (not to undercut Rick Anderson AT ALL - Johan Santana has Rick Anderson to thank for his 2 Cy Youngs). But Garza has found his stride in Tampa and is a perfect fit in our rotation. Jason Bartlett, while still anemic at the plate, has tightened up our defense. And getting rid of Delmon Young has had a positive impact on team chemistry. Personally, I haven't heard of any problems he's causing in the Twins locker room, which makes me hopeful he has learned his lesson and his cognizant of his place in the baseball pecking order.
Offensively, the Rays have not improved much, but everyone is contributing. The enthusiasm and clutch hitting from rookie Evan Longoria (also excellent on defense) is palpable. He still has growing to do and is going to be a legitimate star in a few years time. He is already an all-star, home run derby participant, and makes habitual web gem plays.
Even though the Rays are not a team of sluggers (only one player hitting above .300), they have more than made up in the defensive changes and solid starting rotation able to go deep into games. While Scott Kazmir, who is often thought of as the Rays ace, got a late start after being on the DL for a month, Andy Sonnanstine (the number FOUR pitcher) has quietly raked up 10 wins.
Lastly, Dioner Navarro. Named to the all-star team, our catcher has been the most improved player from last year to this year. Last year he straddled the Mendoza line, but this year has the best average on the team (.306). He has also stepped up defensively by calling some fantastic games and proving his leadership, notably by knocking Garza down a peg. Garza's start after the verbal beat down - when decided to finally stop shaking Navy off - was a one hit complete game.
This year the Rays found the pieces to the puzzle. And the best part? No one is going anywhere. They are all thrilled to finally be part of a winning team. Those people who say the Rays are too young and inexperienced to make it to the post season or even win a playoff series could be right even though I don't buy that. But next year, that excuse won't work.
As for the post title. One thing the Rays organization did this year to try to attract fans (even though we have the best record in baseball, the attendance is still a little pathetic) was their summer concert series. Every Saturday home game is followed by a free concert for fans. Next Saturday, after Dean and I watch the Rays play the Jays, we get to stick around for MC Hammer. It doesn't get much better than being a Rays fan right now.