The Tampa Bay Rays have reached the halfway point of the 2011 season on pace for 90 wins -- enough wins to win the NL Central 9 out of 10 years. Unfortunately, that has left them in third place in the AL East and second in the AL Wild Card race. Having both started so exceedingly cold, the resurgence of the Boston Red Sox and the Rays is a testament to the AL East's strength over the last half decade.
A quick gander at the standings makes it obvious; the best three American League teams are in the AL East:
AL East Standings
The Rays, with 45 wins, have a better record than the Detroit Tigers (44-38), who lead the AL Central, and the Texas Rangers (43-39), who lead the AL West. Rays fans cannot help but imagine how well the season would be going had they not started with an miserable 1-8 start.
Nonetheless, the Rays find themselves back in the thick of the playoff race again. And this is in no small part due to the efforts of the following players, the Rays mid-season Most Valuable Players:
Baseball breaks into four basic elements: Pitching, hitting, fielding, and base running. There are more deviations within and around these four elements, but these four are the most important. For the Rays, pitching has been an important strength since the team turned the corner in 2008. This year, they have received impressive showings from their starters and their rebuilt bullpen.
For instance, Kyle Farnsworth came to the Rays on a one-year contract, having seemingly resuscitated his career in 2009. The Farnsworth signing was lauded by many analysts, but those familiar with his awful showing in New York were laughing at the Rays. Now, Farnsworth has 16 saves, 12 shutdowns, and a dominant 2.20 ERA. Oh, and he's only walked two batters all season.
Also, there is David Price, whose luck is not as good as it was in 2010, but whose ability continues to find new peaks. Through 17 starts, he owns a 3.43 ERA and an even more impressive 2.67 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching).
However, the season's first half MVP needs to be James Shields, who not only has an impressive 2.45 ERA, but also 6 complete games and 3 shut outs. His crazy first half has silenced anyone who doubted his ability in 2010, helped push the Rays back into contention, and even catapulted himself in Cy Young talk.