Two teams with similar blueprints are squaring off this weekend at the Roger Centre with more in common than meets the eye.
Aside from the fact that for years, the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays both had gotten accustomed to playing second-fiddle to their American League East counterparts, they have also begun to develop a winning formula starting on the mound.
Tampa, in the race for first in the division and with a World Series appearance behind them two years ago, has had the jump in the development game.
“There are comparisons [between the Jays’ and Rays’ pitching staffs],” Blue Jays pitching coach Bruce Walton told the torontostar.com recently. “They’re all working together to get better and they’re doing it collectively as a rotation.
“They’re all trying to get better at the same time, so they’re learning from each other.”
Their ability to soak up knowledge has paid off this season in the form of two of the most memorable pitching performances in Major League Baseball.
Blue Jays’ starter Brandon Morrow revealed just how electric his arm can be when he baffled the Rays hitters for just over eight innings on Aug. 8.
The 26-year-old dipped deep into his impressive arsenal of pitches to no-hit Tampa Bay until Evan Longoria stepped to the plate with two outs in the ninth inning.
Longoria bounced a soft ground ball that eluded second baseman Aaron Hill’s outstretched glove to spoil the starter’s phenomenal performance.
However, lost in the fray was Morrow’s career-high 17 strikeouts, only three shy of a nine-inning record shared by Roger Clemens (twice), Kerry Wood and Randy Johnson.
On July 26, Matt Garza solidified his name in the history books during what many what many have dubbed the Year of the Pitcher.
The 26-year-old stepped to the mound and showed masterful control en route to holding the Detroit Tigers hitless at Tropicana Field. It was the first no-hitter in Rays’ history and demonstrated the impressive array of weapons Tampa Bay boasts on the mound.
“First of all, we have very talented young pitchers,” Rays’ manager Joe Maddon told MLB.com. “You look at their skill level, velocity – I think we’re one of the few teams that has a lot of good curveballs, which I don’t think happens very often anymore.”
Maddon’s assessment is proven not only by Garza’s no-hitter, but also by the longest serving member of his staff, James Shields, who recently became the team’s all-time leader in wins.
Not to mention the Rays’ first overall draft pick in 2007, David Price. The flame throwing lefthander has had a Cy Young type of season so far, boasting a 17-6 record with a minute 2.87 ERA.
Romero improving steadily
The Blue Jays have their own high first round pick to speak of in Ricky Romero, the sixth overall selection of the 2005 draft.
Romero was second in the American League in wins by a rookie in 2009 with 13, and has already amassed 12 victories so far this year, putting himself in a position to surpass that mark.
Tampa Bay’s rotation, like Toronto’s, is mostly home grown talent and have been developed by their respective organizations.
Aside from Garza, Tampa Bay’s rotation is comprised of its own draft picks, as Jeff Niemann, Wade Davis, Shields and Price have never called another team home.
Toronto has adopted a similar philosophy, utilizing its selections to develop its current pitching staff to the tune of the arms of 12 game winners Brett Cecil, Shaun Marcum and the aforementioned Romero.
Marc Rzepczynski, although having a less than stellar season, was one of only three players from the 2007 draft class to reach the Major Leagues in 2009.
Both these rotations will have room to grow, and more importantly, room to grow together.
If the Jays are hopeful of a World Series appearance akin to the Rays’ run of 2008, they have the right pieces in place, and it starts on the mound.