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Cinderella On Steroids

If your ball diamond thirst remained unquenched after both the White Sox and Cubs bowed out of post-season play, the Yankees-Rays' division series last week served as a primer for today's state of the game along with giving fans a fascinating baseball fix.

Similar to many stories, this one also begins with the money.

The Yankees possess great riches while the Rays cobbled together a bunch of unknowns, many of whom are paid the major league minimum. Tampa Bay still won 40 games this truncated season, second only to the Dodgers' 43.

According to Spotrac, the Yankee payroll is tops in the major leagues while the Rays are next to the bottom. Combine the paychecks of Yankee superstars Gerrit Cole and Giancarlo Stanton and you can almost cover the entire Tampa Bay team.

Last season, more than 41,000 tickets were sold for each game at Yankee Stadium. Despite the fact that almost 3 million people live in Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater, less than 15,000 showed up for Rays' games in 2019 when the team won 96 games.

The Rays, formerly known as the Devil Rays, drew 2.5 million their first season in Tampa Bay in 1998. They haven't drawn two million since.

The Rays aren't so much small market as small revenue.

Therefore, the Rays are an endearing underdog that so many of us love. At the same time, had the Yankees provided Tampa Bay with their comeuppance, few would have labeled it much of an upset.

Which made it all the sweeter when Mike Brosseau, an undrafted 25-year-old minimum-salaried fellow from nearby Merrillville, Indiana lined an Aroldis Chapman fastball into the first row of the left field seats in Friday's deciding fifth contest. The shot was just one of six hits the entire game and came in the bottom of the eighth, propelling Tampa to a 2-1 win and a face-off with the Houston Astros in the ALCS.

All three runs Friday scored on solo homers, none of which traveled past the first row of the bleachers, a fact gone unreported by Statcast.

Before Brosseau's heroics, the teams tangled on Tuesday as the Rays won 7-5 to even the series at one. The game personified what baseball has become. Over three hours and 43 minutes and 328 pitches, 24 batters struck out - the Yankees whiffed an astounding 18 times. Pitchers issued 10 walks, of whom four scored, and five home runs accounted for all but two of the runs.

The game didn't lack for drama despite the carousel of strikeouts, walks and homers. Fielders were called upon to handle a minimum of chances, and the presence of bunts, hit-and-runs, and stolen bases was non-existent. By the way, when was the last time you heard someone mention situational hitting?

Stanton hit two homers on Tuesday, including a mammoth 458-foot shot that was headed for Naples. Whether that meant Florida or Italy wasn't clear, but the majestic drive counted the same as Brosseau's drive, which just cleared the left field wall.

For those of us who struggle to digest the analytics of the game, we should acknowledge that Friday's drama creates the possibility that any game can be as appealing and entertaining as contests from the past.

Tampa manager Kevin Cash created much of the intrigue Friday with his strategy of calling upon pitcher Tyler Glasnow on two days' rest after pitching five innings Tuesday, in which he threw 93 pitches. Knowing that Cole wasn't about to give up many runs, Cash figured that Glasnow could go once through the Yankee lineup before yielding to a parade of relievers who likewise would face nine hitters.

The scheme worked like a charm. Glasnow held the New Yorkers hitless before Nick Anderson, Pete Fairbanks and, finally, Diego Castillo followed. Aaron Judge nicked Anderson for an opposite field home run that barely cleared the right field fence at the 322-foot sign for New York's lone run. Yankee hitters never saw the same pitcher twice.

While the Yankees have well-known players like Cole, Stanton, Judge, DJ LeMahieu and others, I dare you to name three starting players in the Rays' lineup. Six of those on Friday were making the minimum major-league salary, or close to it, as recently as last season.

Players like Ji-Man Choi, the roly-poly first baseman with the Teddy Bear smile, had been bandied about before finding a home in Tampa two years ago. Yandy Diaz, Friday's DH, came over from Cleveland in 2019, while Mike Zunino, a superb defensive catcher with a career .207 batting average but 95 home runs, joined the Rays last season after six years in Seattle.

Centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier, another outstanding defender who doesn't hit much, makes $10 million for a full season. Kiermaier is homegrown, having been a 31st-round draft pick who now is in his eighth season with the Rays. Third baseman Brandon Lowe and pitcher Blake Snell both were drafted by the Rays, but the remainder of the roster came via trades and free agent signings.

The guy responsible for much of the team's fortunes is general manager Erik Neander, 37, who's been in the position since 2016. Please don't assume that he's one of these Ivy League wunderkinds, steeped in analytics, numbers, data and math. Neander is a former ballplayer - high school, that is. He attended Virginia Tech, where in preparation for his future he majored in food, nutrition and exercise. As far as I can tell, the only employer he's ever had is the Rays, where he signed on as an intern in 2007.

While Neander may seem an unlikely choice for his present position, Cash adds to the unique quality of the franchise. A former big leaguer who went undrafted out of Florida State, Cash was the youngest manager in the major leagues when he was hired by the Rays in 2015 at the age of 38. He had played parts of eight seasons with five different American League clubs before becoming the bullpen coach with Cleveland in 2012. In six seasons as Tampa's skipper, the team has a .522 winning record.

Of course, Cash introduced us to "openers," often a relief pitcher who starts a game. Just like Friday, openers pitch an inning or two and are followed by a number of relievers in an attempt to have a fresh guy, thwarting the opposition. Cash raised more than a few eyebrows with this strategy, but over time other managers with flame-throwing relievers joined in.

Cash displayed another wrinkle last week when he employed four outfielders, leaving the infield as porous as a kitchen colander. No doubt his number-crunchers informed him of the odds of flyballs by specific hitters when facing specific pitchers, like in the eighth inning on Tuesday with Stanton facing Anderson. Stanton scalded a ball toward the left-field line, which Randy Arozarena calmly gloved without having to move more than two steps to his right.

Arozarena has an interesting background. Start with his name. Ahh-rrrow-sah-rrraaay-naaah. Trill those "r's." So much fun to say.

He's a Cuban who clandestinely left the country, reportedly by boat headed for the Yucatan. He played a season in Mexico before the Cardinals signed him in 2016, and after hitting .358 in Triple-A last year, Arozarena was called up to the big club.

He was doing just fine until he videoed skipper Mike Shildt's profane and boorish tirade in the Cardinal clubhouse after the Redbirds dispatched Atlanta in the NLDS. The video wound up on social media, propelling Arosarena into disfavor. He was traded to Tampa Bay last winter, but his debut with the Rays was delayed when he contracted COVID-19.

Once he got rolling, Arozarena became a force. In the first three games against the Yankees, he went 8-for-12 with three homers. He plays with verve and emotion and is a prominent personality in the Never-Heard-of-Him Club.

Another member of that club is the aforementioned Brosseau. Brosseau played four years of college ball at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, which is in the Horizon League.

(As an aside, Simeon's Kendrick Nunn, who played brilliantly for the Miami Heat in the NBA finals, also played at Oakland his senior season after being dismissed from the University of Illinois team.)

Brosseau could always hit, but no club drafted him four years ago. The thoroughness and skill of the Rays' scouting department was on full display when they signed Brosseau in June 2016. Advancing through the Rays' system, Brosseau even went to play in the Australian Baseball League the winter (summer in Australia) of 2017.

Last year at Triple-A Durham, Brosseau earned a shot with the big club, where he slashed .273/.319/.781 in 51 games. Those numbers rose to .302/.378/.936 in 36 games this season.

Chapman had uncorked a 101-mph missile dangerously close to Brosseau's head during the regular season, leading to a heated standoff between the two clubs. But in a post-game interview Friday, Brosseau claimed that all was in the past as he worked the Yankee closer in a 10-pitch at-bat that resulted in Brosseau's historic feat. He no longer is a member of the NHOH Club.

After another tense 2-1 win over Houston on Sunday night in Game 1 of the ALCS, Tampa Bay, complete with its unorthodox manager, little-known players, small payroll, and not a whole lot of home runs, is just three wins away from the World Series. They have challenged the trends of the game, emphasizing pitching and defense and out-of-the-box strategy. My friends, we're looking at Cinderella on steroids.


Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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