No team looks more imposing than Rays
The Tampa Bay Rays appear to be the best team in baseball, and I hope I haven't just jinxed them. That crown has been passed around a few times already this season, and there's still six weeks remaining in the regular season.
The Rangers were that team for a while. The Nationals are still right there in the mix. There's an argument to be made for the Reds and Braves as well.
The A's and White Sox just keep rolling around, and the Yankees are a tough, resilient group that seems capable of absorbing any injury.
So there you have it. There are at least eight teams that would surprise no one by winning the World Series.
And we haven't even gotten to September yet. At this time last season, no one had the Rays and Cardinals on their radar screens. With 16 teams within five games of a playoff berth, there's plenty of time for new story lines.
Still, if you're thinking about October, no team looks more imposing than the Rays. They're attempting to make the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons, and so you already know plenty about them.
You know their management is brilliant, that they've perfected the art of doing more with less than any other team. There's no general manager better than Andrew Friedman. Likewise, Joe Maddon is one of the managers others are measured against.
This has been a tough season for the Rays, with 10 players on the disabled list at one point. For a time, it looked like the entire season would be derailed by injuries.
Maybe that's why we'll look back and see this as Maddon's finest hour. He didn't have his most irreplaceable player, Evan Longoria, for 86 games and managed to get his team to go 42-44.
Through the tough times, Maddon kept his guys going in the same direction. Now they're playing their best. They're 22-13 since the All-Star Break and have won 16 of 21 to get 13 games over .500 for the first time. At 67-54, they're leading the race for the two American League Wild Card berths.
They finished up an 8-2 road trip Sunday afternoon by completing a resounding four-game sweep of the Angels by the combined score of 37-14. One of their losses on this trip was Felix Hernandez's perfect game. Otherwise, they were the perfect team.
Plenty can happen between now and the playoffs, but with the Rays almost whole again, they're finally the team plenty of people thought could be playing deep into October.
First, there's all that pitching. The Rays -- and the A's -- serve as a reminder that teams can overcome almost anything if they can pitch well.
The Rays lead the American League in ERA (3.32) and strikeouts (1,001). If that holds up, it would be the lowest ERA for an American League team since the 1990 A's had a 3.18 mark. They're on a pace for 1,345 strikeouts, which would break the American League record of 1,266 for the 2001 Yankees.
The Rays don't always put a lot of runs on the board, and there are days they kick the ball around.
But they're in every game because they pitch. That's not just the heralded rotation. They take care of business in the bullpen, too.
The Rays have given up one run or less in 12 of their last 25 games. They've given up two or less in 17 of 29.
Since July 28, they've been virtually perfect, going 16-5 with a 1.89 ERA. Meanwhile, the Rays' bullpen has a 0.87 ERA in its last 29 games.
To beat the Rays means beating David Price, who has 16 victories and a 2.39 ERA and appear to be the leader for the American League Cy Young Award. On the other end of the game, Fernando Rodney has 38 saves and a 0.79 ERA.
Now about Longoria. He's hitting .244 with two home runs and nine RBIs since returning from the disabled list on August 7.
But there's no arguing his impact on the overall lineup. The Rays are 11-2 and scoring six runs a game since his return. Overall, they're 25-10 and scoring more than five runs a game with him in the lineup.
Not that long ago, the Rays were a nice novelty act. They were the low-revenue team in the funny ballpark that managed a couple of nice rides into the postseason.
They're way beyond that now. No team looks forward to playing them, and as October approaches, they may be the team others would least like to face.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.