Would you like to know which little-known player is poised for a major-league breakthrough? There’s an easy way to tell. Don’t bother learning the nuances of scouting or the mysteries of analytics. Just pay attention when the Tampa Bay Rays make a roster move.
“Our front office, they have just won about every trade possible in recent years,” center fielder Kevin Kiermaier said on Wednesday, after the Rays moved within a game of the American League Championship Series with an 8-4 victory over the Yankees in San Diego. “It’s incredible the talent we’ve acquired, the talent we bring up through the minor leagues. They’ve been spot-on this whole time.”
Kiermaier bruised Masahiro Tanaka with a three-run homer in the fourth inning of Game 3, and Randy Arozarena knocked him out with a leadoff shot in the fifth. The Rays took a two-games-to-one lead in the best-of-five series and can close out the Yankees in Game 4 on Thursday.
When the Rays acquired Arozarena in a January trade with the St. Louis Cardinals, Kiermaier knew nothing about him. Arozarena, 25, had played less than two months in the majors, and Kiermaier, who has spent eight seasons with Tampa Bay, looked up his stats.
“I’m sitting there like, ‘O.K., this guy can put up numbers like these,’” Kiermaier said. “And then watching him in spring training, it was incredible, I swear he hit .600 there as well.”
That is Arozarena’s average in this postseason — 4 for 8 against Toronto in the first round, and now 8 for 12 against the Yankees with a homer in all three games. His teammates cannot agree on which planet created such an otherworldly force.
After Game 2, pitcher Tyler Glasnow called Aronzarena “the best player on Earth.” After Game 3, catcher Michael Perez said, through an interpreter: “I feel like even with his eyes closed, he can hit. He’s from another planet.”
In the dugout during Game 3, Kiermaier made the “we’re not worthy” gesture with his arms after Arozarena’s second hit. Starter Charlie Morton — who closed out the World Series for Houston in 2017 — said Aronzarena defied comparison: “I’ve never seen anything like this,” Morton said, and Manager Kevin Cash agreed.
“I don’t recall one,” Cash said. “I’m sure there’s been some guys that have done some special things, but when you’re watching it first-hand, it’s pretty remarkable what’s taken place.”
Just how remarkable? According to data from thebaseballgauge.com, only two players — both Yankees — have ever hit .600 with three home runs in a postseason series: Babe Ruth in the 1928 World Series and Hideki Matsui in the 2009 World Series. This series is not over, of course, but with a .667 average to go with his three homers, Arozarena could join the list.
“I’ve always considered myself a pretty good player, also a pretty good hitter,” he said through an interpreter this week. “I work hard and train hard in doing so. Ever since the minor leagues and my time in Cuba, I’ve always hit, and I’ve always carried those results over wherever I’ve been.”
Arozarena, a left fielder, defected to Mexico before signing with the Cardinals for $1.25 million in 2016. In 92 games between Class AA and AAA last season, he hit .344 with 15 homers, 17 steals and a 1.003 on-base plus slugging percentage.
He played briefly for the Cardinals and was part of their playoff roster, earning a spot in social-media infamy for live-streaming a private clinching celebration, including a feisty speech by Manager Mike Shildt. The Cardinals excused the mistake, but with a glut of outfielders, they traded Arozarena to the Rays in a deal for Matthew Liberatore, a 20-year-old left-hander considered one of the best pitchers in the minors.
Most low-payroll teams would hold tightly to a prospect like Liberatore, but Tampa Bay revels in the unorthodox. The Rays were eager to build off last year’s playoff appearance and believed Arozarena had the strike-zone recognition and all-around skills to help right away.
“He put together back-to-back seasons that really caught our eye and the guys were excited about,” Cash said. “Then he comes into Port Charlotte in the normal spring training 1.0 and did above and beyond that. We saw the athleticism, the ability to hit to all fields and cover a lot of ground in the outfield.”
Arozarena did not quite hit .600 in the Florida exhibition season, but he was 8 for 12 with a .586 on-base percentage when the pandemic shut things down. When the Rays re-convened for summer camp, Arozarena tested positive for Covid-19. Though he was said to be asymptomatic, it took several weeks for him to test negative.
Arozarena used the time away to add muscle to his 5-foot-11, 185-pound frame, and finally joined the roster in late August. He made a solid impression in 23 games, hitting .281 with 7 homers — and then made a critical wardrobe change before the division series, borrowing a teammate’s black cowboy boots to revive an old superstition.
“One year I was the batting champ in Mexico and I had a pair of boots down there,” Arozarena said. “I used to call them the Powerful Boots’ Anytime I wore them, I would hit a home run. I think they gave me luck; they gave me power to go up there. A couple of days ago, before the first game, I put them on in hopes that I would hit a homer.”
For three games in San Diego, The Powerful Boots have helped kick the powerful Yankees to the brink of elimination.
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