In the Tampa Bay region, where baseball seems to be foreign, the people clearly don't get it. But the first five weeks of the 2010 season have indicated that the best race in baseball isn't the battle of the network stars -- the Sparta Yankees and Athens Red Sox -- but between the Tampa Bay Rays and those same Yankees. The division rivals went into Sunday with the two best records in baseball (22-8 and 21-8, respectively), between them inflicting eight losses in nine games on the Red Sox at Fenway Park. The Rays' run differential was +84, the Yanks' +73; the Phils were next at +43.
The Rays lost, 4-0, to the A's on Sunday, but not because of their pitching. James Shields allowed two earned runs in six innings, but Tampa Bay fell victim to Dallas Braden's perfect game.
Before the season opened, the storyline was supposed to be about Boston's pitching and the Yankees' power. Five weeks in, the story has been Tampa's starting pitching. Oh, the Yankees' starters, with the exception of Vazquez, have been very good -- 17-4, 3.21 ERA good -- and the New York staff has allowed fewer runs than anyone in the American League, but Tampa Bay ...
Matt Garza is 26, Jeff Niemann is 27, Wade Davis and David Price are just 24 and Shields is the old-timer at 28. As they prepared to finish their series in Oakland on Sunday, the Rays starters led the Majors with a combined 18-3 record and an ERA of 2.48, better than even the Giants.
They led the American League in quality starts with 21. In their first 30 games, those five starters failed to get them into the sixth inning just once. Think about that. Then think about this: In 16 of those 30 starts, the man who started the game got them to the eighth inning.
Sure, sure, they're finishing up a stretch in which they played 12 straight against the Athletics, Mariners and Royals, but the season totals include three games with the Yankees and a four-game sweep in Boston, in which they played 39 innings and allowed a total of eight runs.
"We're asking a lot of these guys," says manager Joe Maddon. "Jeff Niemann is in his second full season as a starter. David Price was eased into a starting role last year (23 starts). Wade Davis is in his first full season as a starter. But they're a mature bunch, they have stuff, they learn. I think they can handle this."
The Rays' approach is in contrast to the manner the Yankees' carefully groomed Phil Hughes to become the giant he has appeared to be early in the season, and the way the Red Sox have nurtured Clay Buchholz to get to the point where he can make close to 30 starts behind Jon Lester, Lackey and Beckett.
You don't need John Farrell or Dave Eiland to remind you that developing a young pitcher in the American League East is far more difficult than it would be in, say, one of the West divisions. And given the fact that the Rays, who were in the World Series two years ago, know they can't get to the postseason with fewer than 90-something wins, what they are doing as they build this rotation is nothing short of remarkable.
When you're operating on a $73 million payroll -- yes, about a third of what the Yankees are spending -- there is going to be a soft underbelly, and in this case, it is the depth of the Rays' bullpen, especially with J.P. Howell on the disabled list. Which is why the starters getting through the seventh in more than half their games is so important. And why the fact that Garza has completed eight innings in four of his six starts is so important. And why the fact that Price has a complete game in one start and left only 14 outs combined to the 'pen in three others is significant. And why the fact that Niemann has gotten to the eighth in four of his six starts is significant. They're saving the middle-relief corps.
The legitimate question come June, July and August, when it's hot and there are doubleheaders and the fatigue of daylight giving way to another evening sets in, is whether the inexperience and youth will wear down. The Rays hope Howell returns to normal, as he has been the lynchpin of the 'pen in '08 and '09. They have two promising kids at Durham and Montgomery who could be second-half factors: Right-hander Jeremy Hellickson (5-0, 2.57, 35-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in Triple-A) and left-hander Alex Torres (35 strikeouts in 29 innings in Double-A), who was acquired from the Angels with Sean Rodriguez in the Scott Kazmir deal last summer. Kazmir, with a 7.11 ERA, probably wouldn't be in the current Rays rotation.
The Rays will try to find another veteran setup man to front Rafael Soriano before the Trade Deadline, as they also try to find a left-handed bat. They will find out if a rotation with an average of 59 career starts will hold up, and how that impacts the back end of the bullpen. But Cubs manager Lou Piniella has long maintained that July and August are the months of the power pitchers, and that in the heat of the summer, it is stuff that wins. And this rotation has power, and it has stuff.
How this young Tampa Bay rotation has matured and what it has accomplished has been one of the best stories of the first five weeks. Not to pick on the Cubs, but the fact remains that the entire Rays rotation combined makes less than Carlos Silva, and not even half of what is earned by Carlos Zambrano, and yet, as the sun sets on their final day on the West Coast on Sunday, it was the best rotation in the game.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.