ST. PETERSBURG -- The Rays reached the playoffs for the third time in four years with a great run down the stretch to overtake the slumping Red Sox.
If a team understands that records don't mean anything, it's this year's Tampa Bay squad. Last season, the Rays entered the playoffs with the best record in the American League, but they got bounced in the American League Division Series by the Rangers -- the same squad they'll face in a best-of-five showdown starting Friday afternoon.
Here are the five keys for the Rays to make sure they find a way to win during the 2011 postseason:
1. Continued strong performances from their starters
James Shields has led a strong rotation this season, and he has done so by going deep into the games, which is a trait shared by the rest of a staff that includes David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann. The Rays likely will go with four starters on their postseason roster, which means one of the five will not make a start. If the starters continue to make quality starts and pitch deep into the games, Tampa Bay's bullpen will be even stronger than it was at the end of the season due to its limited use.
2. Be more consistent on offense
All season long, the Rays' offense has struggled to find consistency. A part of that equation is the fact every player on the field has to be able to field his position. Thus, Tampa Bay's lineup is composed primarily of athletic players. So even if they do not find that consistency on offense, the Rays are capable of manufacturing runs with their speed and athleticism. But there are nights when it doesn't matter who is pitching against them, they simply can't hit. They can't have too many performances like that in October and survive.
3. Keep playing stellar defense
Tampa Bay's clubhouse has a Gold Glove hanging in it to remind the players that team defense wins games. All season long, the Rays have played stellar defense, and we're not just talking about catching them when they're hit their way. They seem to catch everything, and they have the range to make plays other teams only dream about. While the pitching staff sometimes suffers from not enough run support, that reality is always counterbalanced by the number of runs the Rays save with their defense.
4. Desmond Jennings' coming out party
Jennings gave the Rays a huge boost in the leadoff spot in the second half. Not only can he run down everything in left field -- which translates to an amazing amount of ground covered when you throw center fielder B.J. Upton into the equation -- but Jennings has also has hit. He has shown a disciplined eye while displaying a surprising amount of power. If Jennings plays like he can play, the electricity he produces could carry Tampa Bay a long way.
5. Solid bullpen performance
The bullpen pitched well down the stretch, with Joel Peralta filling in as the closer on several occasions when Kyle Farnsworth nursed a sore right elbow. Peralta and Farnsworth need to stay strong in their roles as the eighth-inning guy and the closer, respectively. Meanwhile, the young arms who gained experience down the stretch need to continue to grow when their time comes in the sixth and seventh innings.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.