If not for the Tampa Bay Rays — for their pitching staff, for a line drive that just kept going Friday night - the rest of this month would have been four teams from four big cities using four big payrolls to chase a big, shiny trophy.
But the Rays had a different plan.
They play in the American League East, had the AL’s best record in 2020, and now get to show an even larger audience how to win on a budget. They’ll face the Houston Astros in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series in San Diego on Sunday.
How’s that for a narrative shift?
“We might as well ruin their day up there in Connecticut,” said Rays reliever Pete Fairbanks, referring to ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol (ESPN won’t be broadcasting any of the ALCS games or the World Series). “We’re fine with it. We love it. We’re a good ballclub and we’re trying to go out there and win no matter how big the market is for the team we’re playing across.”
They swept the Toronto Blue Jays out of the wild-card round. Next they’ll take the noble role of battling the Astros. But the ALDS, the way it ended, was a true reflection of how odd and effective these Rays are.
It took five games to best the New York Yankees, who Fairbanks called ESPN’s “golden child,” who turned to Gerrit Cole, their $324 million ace, in Game 5. It took, really, a gutsy bullpen plan and Mike Brosseau’s late homer off Aroldis Chapman. Brosseau, undrafted in 2016, was nearly hit in the head by Chapman’s 101-mph fastball in September. Both benches cleared then, showing Tampa the unfamiliar space of tabloids and Internet debate. Then Chapman, on a $48 million contract himself, was beat by Brosseau on the 10th pitch of an eighth-inning at-bat Friday, a shot that chased the Yankees and swirled the Rays' dugout into a mosh pit.
To get there, they used Nick Anderson, a late-inning reliever, for eight outs between the third and fifth. Fairbanks and Diego Castillo each pitched two frames behind him. Brosseau was the hero of an unbelievable ending. It was all very Rays, and now their run continues.
“Are you surprised?” Anderson asked, countering a question about using high-leverage relievers in early innings. “That’s kind of like the Rays way: Switch things up, do something a little different.”
The Rays are more than a club outplaying their owners' spending habits. To only consider them that, to romanticize their lack of large contracts, would be reductive and, well, cheap. But it is worth putting their payroll next to what the Yankees, Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves pay for talent. The Yankees, to no surprise, had the highest expected payroll for 2020. The Dodgers ranked second, the Astros were fourth and the Braves, squaring off with the Dodgers in the NLCS, were 14th.
Tampa? Twenty-eighth, just ahead of the Pittsburgh Pirates and Baltimore Orioles. The Rays have mastered a blend of scouting, analytics and player development. They are known to win trades. Just look at those who led them through the ALDS — Randy Arozarena, Tyler Glasnow, Anderson, Fairbanks, Castillo, Brosseau — and how they wound up on the roster.
Arozarena arrived in an offseason swap with the St. Louis Cardinals, a deal headlined by the Rays acquiring José Martínez for a former first-round pick. Arozarena has three homers, 12 hits and a 1.426 OPS in the playoffs. Glasnow and Austin Meadows, who homered in Game 5, were the return for the Rays sending Chris Archer to the Pirates at the 2018 trade deadline. Fairbanks came in a quiet trade with the Texas Rangers in 2019. The Rays netted Anderson from the Miami Marlins in July of 2019. They plucked Ji-Man Choi and Castillo off the international free agent market. And Brosseau, now etched into October lore, was not one of 1,126 players picked in the 2016 draft.
When they have opened their wallets, it’s been quick and for pitching. Blake Snell, who will likely start Game 1 of the ALCS, signed a five-year, $50 million extension before last season. Veteran Charlie Morton, who will likely start Game 2, signed for two years and $30 million in December of 2018. But the staff is typically all hands on deck.
Both Snell and Morton were warming in the ninth inning of their Game 5 win over the Yankees. Glasnow started on two days rest and completed 2⅓ innings. In the regular season, 12 different relievers notched a save, from six for Anderson to one for Ryan Thompson, Jalen Beeks, Ryan Sherriff, Chaz Roe, Andrew Kittredge, Anthony Banda and Edgar Garcia. On Friday, as they edged past the Yankees, a baseball writer had Twitter followers create their Rays bullpen name using a simple formula: The name of your oldest cousin plus the northernmost city you’ve visited.
Does yours sound like they could strike out Aaron Judge?
“Knowing how well we played in the playoffs last year, coming into this year and having that chip on our shoulder, I think some people kind of counted us out,” Glasnow said after the Rays advanced. “But it’s just another year to mesh, to be honest with you. We’re clicking on all cylinders.”
Last October, the Rays pushed Houston for five games before falling in the ALDS. Now they’ll meet again in San Diego, at the neutral site of Petco Park, for a chance at the title.
After beating the Yankees there, the Rays staged a loud celebration in and just outside of their dugout. They blasted “New York, New York” by Frank Sinatra and “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys. They puffed on cigars, drank from Gatorade cups, watched a dance battle between Arozarena and Brett Phillips. While filming for Instagram, Choi, a cigar in his mouth, banged a recycling bin to mimic how the Astros illegally stole signs in 2017 and 2018. He laughed. So did his teammates.
The small-market Rays are crashing the back half of the playoffs. Big-market opponents beware.