MLB

MLB playoffs 2021: Rays enter postseason after dominant campaign

By Sports Desk October 06, 2021

No team does more with less than the Tampa Bay Rays. It hasn't yet paid off in a World Series title, but that day could be drawing near.

Following the best regular season in history, the 100-win Rays are set to open Thursday's American League Division Series (ALDS) against the Boston Red Sox, who defeated the New York Yankees 6-2 in Tuesday's Wild Card game. Playing in the postseason has become commonplace for Tampa Bay – the Rays lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games in last season's World Series after falling to the Houston Astros in the 2019 ALDS.

This season was particularly gratifying for the budget-conscious Rays, who had the AL's best record in consecutive seasons for the first time. They should have no fear facing the Red Sox following an 11-8 record in the season series, including 7-3 at home.

Tampa Bay went a franchise-record 51–25 against the AL East in a year when four of five times won 90 games, the first time that's happened since baseball went to six divisions in 1994. The Rays accomplished all this with 61 different players, including 38 pitchers, both franchise records.

While the core of this year's Rays team is much the same as last season, their scheduled starting pitchers for Games 1 and 2 of the ALDS are rookies Shane McClanahan and Shane Baz. Tampa Bay will become just the second team in postseason history to start rookie pitchers in the first two games of a playoff series, joining the 2012 Oakland Athletics in the ALDS (Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone).

McClanahan, 24, went 10-6 with a 3.43 ERA and 141 strikeouts in 25 starts in his rookie campaign and the 22-year-old Baz - the team's number one prospect – has just three starts on his major league resume. McClanahan allowed more than three runs just three times in his 25 starts and Baz totalled 18 strikeouts and surrendered only six hits in 13.1 innings as a major leaguer.

The left-handed McClanahan relies heavily on heat and his fastball velocity of 96.5 mph was the fourth highest by an AL starter (minimum 750 thrown as a starter) this season. Only Gerrit Cole (97.7), Nathan Eovaldi (96.9) and Dylane Cease (96.7) were better. McClanahan handled the Red Sox very well this season, posting a 2.81 ERA in three starts with 18 strikeouts in 16 innings.

When the Rays opened the 2020 postseason against the Toronto Blue Jays, their first two starters were Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow. Due to budget constraints for a team that ranked 26th in payroll this season at $76.6million, Snell was traded to the San Diego Padres in the offseason and Glasnow was limited to 14 starts due to a season-ending elbow injury.

 

An injury to their ace and the trade of a former Cy Young Award winner hardly mattered as the Rays led the AL with a 3.67 ERA. Elite pitching has become the norm for Tampa Bay, which has a 3.64 ERA since the start of the 2019 season, a mark bettered only by the mega-payroll Los Angeles Dodgers (3.16) during that span. Dodgers' pitchers Trevor Bauer and Clayton Kershaw – both of whom won't be pitching this postseason – earned a combined $69m this season, just $7.6m less than the entire Rays payroll.

The Rays bullpen is also a major strength and another area where they seem to have an unrivalled ability to find contributors from out of nowhere. The relievers underwent an overhaul during the season and saves leader Diego Castillo was traded to Seattle in late July. J.T. Chargois was acquired as part of that deal, and he went 5-1 with a 1.90 ERA in 25 appearances.

Tampa Bay's relievers led the majors with 58 wins and topped the AL with a 3.23 ERA, holding opponents to a .224 batting average despite pitching a major league-high 703 innings. While that is a lot of innings for a bullpen to cover, Andrew Kittredge led the team with 57 appearances to rank tied for 99th in MLB.

While the Rays and their uncanny ability to develop pitching consistently garners most of the headlines, this season's club also features a potent and diverse offense that scored a franchise-record 857 runs, second most in the majors behind the Astros (863). Just as impressive is Tampa Bay scoring a major league-best 312 runs in the seventh inning or later, with the next-closest team the San Francisco Giants (276).

Austin Meadows spearheads the line-up and is coming off a career-high 106 RBIs this season, one every 4.89 at-bats. That is the third-best RBI rate of any qualified AL player this season. Ahead of Meadows are Toronto's Teoscar Hernandez (4.74) and Jose Abreu (4.84) of the Chicago White Sox. Meadows is the first Tampa Bay player to reach 100 RBIs since Evan Longoria in 2010.

Prized rookie Wander Franco made his major league debut on June 22 and sparked the Rays to a 46-24 record the rest of the way. The 20-year-old Franco reached base in 43 consecutive games at one point, tying Frank Robinson (1956) for the longest such streak by a player 20 years or younger. Franco's .439 on-base percentage against lefties since the All-Star break ranked fifth in MLB.

Randy Arozarena has already proven he can flourish in the postseason. He was the talk of the 2020 playoffs after he slashed .377/.429/.831 and set postseason records for home runs (10) and hits (29) en route to winning MVP honours in the AL Championship Series (ALCS). Arozarena's 2021 was not nearly as devastating, but he did become just the third player in franchise history to collect 20 steals and 20 home runs (BJ Upton and Tommy Pham).

Tampa Bay can mash with the best of teams, ranking tied for third in the AL with 222 home runs, including five players with at least 20. Brandon Lowe finally stayed injury-free, and the result was 39 home runs and 99 RBI, including the first three-homer game by a left-handed batter in team history.  

Those 39 homers tied him for second in Rays history in single-season homers, trailing Carlos Pena's 46 in 2007. Lowe, Mike Zunino (33) and Meadows (27) combined for 99 home runs, tied for third most of any team-mate trio in the majors.

Zunino only batted .216 but he crushed left-handed pitching to the tune of a major league-high .868 slugging percentage (minimum 100 plate appearances). His 33 home runs were the most by a Rays catcher and all came while catching. That total was two shy of the AL record while catching, set by Ivan Rodriguez in 1999.

Nelson Cruz was acquired from the Minnesota Twins in July and the 41-year-old provided exactly what the Rays hoped with 13 homers and 36 RBIs in 55 games with strong leadership. He has always loved to hit at Fenway Park with a .343 life-time average, 14 home runs and 44 RBIs in 49 games at baseball's oldest park. Cruz's batting average at Fenway ranks third among active players (minimum 100 at-bats).

The Rays had the AL East locked up weeks ago and even the best record in the AL wasn't a huge challenge, so they haven't played pressure-packed games in a while. Still, with nothing left to play for this past weekend, they won two of three at Yankee Stadium and proved they have no problem turning it on when necessary.

A case can easily be made that no team is heading into the postseason with such a high level of both offense and pitching as the Rays. Tampa Bay have truly become the city of champions lately with the success of the NHL's Lightning and NFL's Buccaneers and the Rays could very well add their name to that list.

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    The Everton fans who had bravely bothered to stick around until full-time of Wednesday's derby-day surrender to Liverpool made their voices heard in no uncertain times.

    "Sack the board" was the chant aimed in the direction of the directors' boxes, with chairman Bill Kenwright and director of football Marcel Brands bearing the brunt of the ire from the disgruntled Toffees faithful.

    Conversely, there were plenty of songs of support for Everton boss Rafa Benitez – the only issue being they were songs of joy from a buoyant Liverpool away end keen to serenade their legendary former manager as his present employers were ruthlessly dismantled 4-1 at Goodison Park.

    The exodus of home fans began from 20 minutes, by which time Reds captain Jordan Henderson and Mohamed Salah had put Liverpool 2-0 in front – the latter and Joel Matip having already passed up golden opportunities.

    Those who stayed were offered brief hope of a recovery when Demarai Gray halved the deficit before the break, but Salah and the brilliant Diogo Jota offered a brutal reminder of the chasm that exists between Merseyside's heavyweights.

    Cliche lovers never fail to remind us that the form book goes out the window in derby matches. But that fabled window was slammed shut for an Everton side now winless in eight top-flight matches, with six of those ending in defeat.

    What is so maddening for the Blue half of the city is the predictability of it all. Everton's present predicament is the result of muddied thinking, a raft of managerial changes, and a baffling approach in the transfer market that has resulted in a disjointed and dispirited squad.

    Benitez has to take his share of the blame, of course. Attempting a 4-4-2 against Liverpool's attacking juggernaut, allowing Salah and the rest of the Reds' devasting cast the freedom of Goodison Park, is a decision that ranks among the very worst of his illustrious career.

    But the Spaniard's hands have been tied to an extent. Limited funds in the transfer market, the loss of star striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin to injury, and colossally dense thinking in the boardroom have all played a part in the Toffees' increasingly sticky situation.

    Benitez's appointment was met with widespread despair given his association to the Reds, which included leading Liverpool to that famous Champions League comeback in Istanbul in 2005.

    What will rankle even more for a despairing fanbase is the fact Everton's worryingly rapid fall is coinciding with a time where everything at Liverpool from boardroom to dugout is so frighteningly in sync.

    Picking a title winner from Chelsea, Manchester City or Liverpool right now is a tricky task, and for the neutral long may this thrilling race continue.

    But make no mistake about it, Jurgen Klopp and his marauding troops look bang up for the battle of regaining a trophy wrested back in style by Pep Guardiola's City last term.

    In Salah they have a player who many would agree is the best in the world on current form and he has now been directly involved in at least one goal in each of his last 12 Premier League appearances (11 goals, seven assists) – the third player to achieve that feat after Stan Collymore (12) and Jamie Vardy (15).

    The Egyptian's sensational form is in keeping with Liverpool's relentless assaults on their opponents. In this game, the Reds broke the all-time record for consecutive games of scoring two or more goals (18), and the 25 away goals they have scored in their first seven on the road has only been bettered twice (Sunderland, 27 in 1892-93, Manchester United, 26 in 1907-08).

    Moreover, the 43 goals in 14 games they have scored is not only their most at this stage of a league season since 1895-96 (48 goals), it is 10 more than anyone else has managed so far (Chelsea - 33). It is also the first time Liverpool have scored four at Goodison since the famous 4-4 in 1991, Kenny Dalglish's last game of his first spell in charge, and the first time in the league since Ian Rush scored four in a 5-0 win in November 1982.

    It was just over 13 months ago that Liverpool departed Goodison Park with a 2-2 draw and the loss of influential centre-back Virgil van Dijk to a serious knee injury after being clattered by Jordan Pickford.

    It began a raft of injuries, particularly in defence, that ultimately derailed their title defence. But Van Dijk and his team-mates were all smiles on a night when the gulf between the Reds and the Blues, both on and off the pitch, was laid bare in such a devastating manner in front of the watching world.

  • Klopp praises Liverpool's best Goodison Park performance after Merseyside derby rout Klopp praises Liverpool's best Goodison Park performance after Merseyside derby rout

    Jurgen Klopp labelled Liverpool's 4-1 win at city rivals Everton as their best performance at Goodison Park in recent years after the Reds earned Merseyside bragging rights.

    Jordan Henderson opened the scoring before assisting Mohamed Salah's opener as he became the first Liverpool captain since 2005 to lay on an assist and get on the scoresheet in a Premier League game at Everton's ground.

    Salah, who has been directly involved in at least one goal in each of his last 12 top-flight fixtures, then added a second as he became the first Red to register a brace away in the Merseyside derby since September 2008.

    Diogo Jota struck in the second half to cap off another productive outing, with Demarai Gray's first-half strike that initially halved the deficit proving irrelevant in a fruitless performance by Rafael Benitez's Everton on Wednesday.

    Klopp, who lost his last Premier League game 2-0 against Everton, praised Liverpool's display as he revelled in the away performance.

    "It was a really good game from my team, a really mature performance, grown-up performance, much better than in years before, especially at Goodison," Klopp told Amazon Prime Video post-match.

    "We were much too open when we gave away the goal but it can happen when you are superior. We should have been one or two-nil up before we scored the first goal.

    "We scored the goals at 2-0 and maybe then we were not that ruthless, we gave them so life back. I am not seeking for perfection, if it would be easy I know everyone could do it. The boys did well."

    The former Borussia Dortmund head coach also indicated Salah, who has now scored 13 times in the league this season to top the charts, was frustrated at not recording a hat-trick in a dominant display.

    "He [Salah] was angry after the game!," he added. "He wanted to score the third one. I don't take these things for granted. 

    "His second goal, you have to force these kinds of mistakes. Mo put Coleman under pressure to win that ball and from then on it is a good chance he will score.

    "We have momentum but it was by far the best performance since I've been at Liverpool at Goodison. Before the game people told me that in derbies form or shape doesn't count, I see it totally different."

    Liverpool are third in the Premier League standings, two points behind leaders Chelsea after 14 matches.

  • 'Real Madrid never give up' – Ancelotti proud of character in Athletic Bilbao win 'Real Madrid never give up' – Ancelotti proud of character in Athletic Bilbao win

    Carlo Ancelotti was pleased with Real Madrid's ability to grind out a 1-0 win over Athletic Bilbao after acknowledging they were far from their best at the Santiago Bernabeu.

    Karim Benzema, who also scored in the 2-1 win over Sevilla at the weekend, grabbed the only goal of the game in the 40th minute with his 12th strike of the LaLiga season.

    The France international has now scored 35 goals in 46 games for Madrid across all competitions in 2021, equalling his best goalscoring tally in a single calendar year for Los Blancos (35 goals in 50 games in 2019).

    The hosts had to work hard for a fifth consecutive LaLiga win, with the visitors taking 18 shots on Thibaut Courtois' goal.

    Indeed, their expected goals against indicator of 2.7 was the highest Madrid have had in a match this season in all competitions.

    "It is true that our opponents had more rest than us, and they are very good," Ancelotti told a media conference.

    "In the first half, we did well. In the second we failed with more passes than in the first, and we suffered.

    "The ability to suffer is a quality of the team. We know how to play football, and we know how to suffer when the football we want to play isn't happening.

    "Real Madrid never give up. Our character and commitment is very strong. Sometimes when we can't use our quality, we are able to use other qualities.

    "I liked the ending more than the first half – we were missing something then."

    The result moved Madrid seven points clear of Atletico Madrid in second, although Diego Simeone's men have a game in hand.

    Los Blancos are next in action on Saturday when they travel to third-placed Real Sociedad, and Ancelotti accepted he might be forced into making changes to his starting XI.

    "The team has finished tired, and we will have to analyse it," he added.

    "It is normal when you play against a fresher team that it costs you at the end a little. I must assess whether to make changes for the next game. We have three games very close [together], without time to rest.

    "I have to think carefully about the decisions, but the streak is very good, and I am very satisfied with everyone: with those who play, those who play for five minutes, and those who do not have a minute.

    "The atmosphere in the team is very good; I like it."

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