Go-Go Rays Look to Ride Speed, Rotation Back to AL Pennant

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Go-Go Rays Look to Ride Speed, Rotation Back to AL Pennant With one month to go until Opening Day, it is time to begin our look at each of the Red Sox’ opponents in the American League East. Our first installment sizes up the Tampa Bay Rays.

2009 record: 84-78, third in A.L. East

Manager: Joe Maddon

Key additions: RP Rafael Soriano, C Kelly Shoppach

Key losses:
2B Akinori Iwamura, RF Gabe Gross

Outlook
The Rays took a giant step forward in 2008 and a small one back in 2009, following up their improbable World Series appearance with an injury-riddled campaign that fell apart down the stretch.

An 11-game losing streak in September dashed any hopes of a repeat playoff berth.

However, defense and pitching – the keys to the 2008 pennant – still prevail in the Tampa Bay clubhouse, and expectations are in place to contend once again.

Soriano is the key, bolstering a bullpen which saw a carousel of closers in 2008. The Rays tied for third in the American League with 22 blown saves. J.P. Howell was the lone bright spot as he filled in admirably late to notch 17 saves, but it robbed Maddon of a key lefthander he could use in other situations. Howell, Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour were never in the right roles.

After going 29-18 in one-run games in 2008, Tampa Bay was 20-25 last year.

Soriano closed out 27-of-31 save chances and had a 2.97 ERA for Atlanta in his first full season as a closer last year.

While the last spot of the starting rotation remains up for grabs, the front four of James Shields, Matt Garza, David Price and Jeff Niemann can compete with the Red Sox and Yankees, provided Price continues to develop. The former No. 1 pick had plenty of hiccups in his rookie season last year, but was 8-3 with a 3.58 ERA down the stretch.

Wade Davis has the inside track on the last spot. The 24-year-old shined after being called up last September and was one of the reasons the team was OK shipping Scott Kazmir away to the Angels.

The go-go Rays stole a major league-high 194 bases last year. Carl Crawford had 60 and B.J. Upton added 42. The former is in a contract year and the latter is healthy after a wrist injury hampered him all of 2009. Toss in a healthy Carlos Pena (also in a contract year), a superstar in waiting in Evan Longoria and a breakout star in Ben Zobrist and Tampa Bay will be a pain to pitch to. Even with Upton, Pena, Iwamura and shortstop Jason Bartlett missing time last year, the Rays ranked fifth in the A.L. in runs scored.

What it all means to the Red Sox
They will never replace the Yankees, but in 2008 the Rays gave the Bronx Bombers a run for their money in terms of being the Red Sox’ biggest rivals. There were nail-biting games, bench-clearing brawls and a spectacular ALCS between Tampa Bay and Boston.

Through it all we learned that the Rays are no longer intimidated by the Red Sox, and in 2010 we could see that rivalry come to the forefront once more. Tampa Bay, which has talked often this spring about getting off to a better start after opening 2009 at 9-14, arrives in Fenway for four games in mid-April.

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March 4: Toronto Blue Jays

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