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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Insider: Tampa Bay Rays overcoming limited resources

Infielder Ryan Roberts celebrates with manager Joe Maddon

Infielder Ryan Roberts celebrates with manager Joe Maddon after the Rays victory over the Yankees. (Sept. 4, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

The Rays, from a financial standpoint, still operate like a small fish in the big pond of the American League East. So the addition of another divisional game for next season's schedule, from 18 to 19, would seem to be unfair, as Rays owner Stu Sternberg complained this past week.

But Joe Maddon, who enjoys thumbing his nose at the Rays' deep-pocket neighbors, couldn't disagree more. With all due respect to Sternberg, whose franchise desperately needs A) a new stadium and B) a new place to put it, Maddon again is proving -- with the help of general manager Andrew Friedman -- that a smart organization can overcome limited resources.

This past week, Sternberg told that the new format is "terrible" and that he'd like his chances playing the Tigers' schedule.

"It's the degree of the imbalance," Sternberg said. "Playing them 14, 15 times a year or 12, 15 times would be fine. This is so out of kilter."

Funny that Sternberg mentioned Detroit, because when asked Friday about his owner's comments, Maddon preferred the Rays' current spot in the AL East. But is it a detriment to his team's playoff hopes, as Sternberg suggested?

"No," Maddon said. "We've actually played pretty well in this division. Look at our record in the Central. Seriously. It's not been good. It's more about the night and how you match up with different teams. Sometimes we actually play better against teams we play more often."

Maddon knows what he's talking about. After yesterday's loss to the Yankees, the Rays are 32-27 (.542) against AL East opponents. Their winning percentage drops precipitously to .433 (13-17) in the AL Central. Where the Rays truly have feasted is the AL West, with a 24-14 (.632) record this season.

Games outside the division represent a smaller sample size, obviously. But as Maddon notes, familiarity probably helps explain that measure of success, especially if you have an intelligent staff with the ability to exploit it on a consistent basis.

Plus, Maddon believes the highly competitive AL East has forced his players to raise their game, and the resulting experience has fueled a World Series run in 2008 along with playoff appearances the past two years, including Tampa Bay's incredible September comeback last season. Rather than complain about the sport's market inequities, the Rays have embraced them.

"I dig who we are and how we do things," Maddon said. "That was one of the attractions of going to Tampa Bay in the first place."

But it's hardly unique to the Rays, whose $64-million payroll is not even the lowest among this season's group of surprising postseason contenders. That distinction belongs to the A's, who at $52.8 million may have Brad Pitt scrambling to make a "Moneyball" sequel.

Of the 15 clubs currently in the hunt, either in the division lead or within three games of a playoff berth, nine have payrolls under $100 million. In fact, the average of that group is $77.8 million.

What can we make of this rise of these frugal phenoms? The game's elite players still are going to get paid like megastars, but there definitely has been an economic shift when it comes to constructing rosters. Or maybe just a leveling of the playing field and a closer look at how the sport's most dominant players may have achieved their status.

"I think the better drug policy in place has something to do with it," Maddon said. "I think there's been more of an emphasis on playing the game well, properly, execution-wise. Bullpens have been outstanding. Hitting is not as prodigious as it had been, maybe five or 10 years ago, and definitely not 15 years ago.

"The game is coming back to the pre-PEDs era, and with that, I've always felt it gives the small-market group a better chance to be competitive. I do believe that."

Next weekend, when the A's visit the Bronx, it will represent the biggest financial discrepancy of all the contending teams. The Yankees' $197-million payroll, which is the highest in baseball, is nearly four times that of the A's -- who swept the Yankees in a four-game series the last time they played.

Magic Numbers


Strikeouts by Adam Dunn, who returned to White Sox lineup yesterday. By missing seven games (strained muscle in his right side), he now is not likely to catch Mark Reynolds, who holds the single-season record with 223.


Characters used by Ozzie Guillen in a profanity-laced tweet ripping ESPN's Buster Olney, who quoted others saying the $118-million Marlins have not been competitive. Guillen gave up Twitter earlier this season. He should have stayed retired.


Innings missed by Dustin Pedroia, who left Wednesday's game in the sixth when his wife went into labor. The joyous event was welcomed by the Yankees, who beat the Pedroia-less Red Sox, 2-0, in Thursday's series finale.


Consecutive wins by Braves in starts by Kris Medlen, matching a streak by Roger Clemens and the Yankees from 2001.


Major-league games started by opposing Japanese pitchers after the Rangers' Yu Darvish and Mariners' Hisashi Iwakuma faced off Friday night. Darvish has won both such duels of his own -- beating Iwakuma and Hiroki Kuroda this season.


Number of times the Reds have spent Opening Day on the road -- only twice since 1900. In sticking with that tradition, next season they will host the first-ever interleague opener when the Angels visit Great American Ball Park.

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