Not so long ago, the Tampa Bay Rays' season seemed practically over, almost before it started.
On the season's second Sunday, the Rays lost to the White Sox, their record falling to 1-8. In their first nine games, they'd scored just one run in six games, and scored more than three just once. They'd lost Evan Longoria for a while. They'd lost Manny Ramirez for good. You'd have been excused for giving up on these Rays for dead.
But then something funny happened on the way to the rebuilding process: the Rays started winning. Since losing eight of their first nine games, they've won eight of their last nine games. Now they're in second place, merely two games behind the Yankees. And nobody's talking about rebuilding.
Nobody's talking about the bullpen, either. And in some quarters, it was the bullpen -- even more than the departure of Carl Crawford -- that was going to drop the Rays from first place in 2010 to third place in 2011.
In 2010, Tampa Bay's relievers led the American League in ERA (3.33), saves (51) and batting average allowed (.228). Their top relievers were particularly spectacular.
In 2011, they're gone. All of them. Well, almost all of them. Seven relievers pitched more than 40 innings for the Rays last season; only Andy Sonnanstine remains. The other six disappeared during the winter, like tulips in North Dakota, never to return. And considering the organization's cost-cutting ways, the 2011 relief corps, cobbled together from duct tape and spare bits of string, simply couldn't match its predecessor.
Theoretically, anyway. With two perfect innings Wednesday night against the White Sox, Tampa Bay's relievers lowered their group ERA to 2.57, the lowest in the American League.
Yes, just like last year.
This testifies to a number of things. For instance, the unreliability of statistics in April. Or perhaps the acumen of Tampa Bay's front office, which hardly needs more testaments. And we might spare some credit for Joe Maddon, who just doesn't seem to care who's in the bullpen.
I am compelled, by duty if not honor, to mention a caveat. To this point, the Rays' relievers have not been as dominant as last year's. Yes, the ERA is lower. But last year's bullpen struck out 7.8 hitters per nine innings, with a 2.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio; the figures for this year's bullpen are just 6.2 and 1.9.
So it says here the 2011 relievers will not be quite as good as the 2010 squad. Will not be as great. But it's not clear that they have to be. With a deep rotation and a solid lineup and (eventually) a healthy Evan Longoria, the Rays just need a good bullpen. And it looks like they might have one. All hail Kyle Farnsworth.