In the NCAA Tournament in college basketball, we had the 9th-seeded Florida Atlantic Owls, the 5th-seeded Miami Hurricanes, and the 5th-seeded San Diego State Aztecs make the Final Four (along with UConn). Not exactly the tournament of blue blood programs despite them having incredibly talented rosters with very impressive regular seasons heading into March.

In the College Football Playoff, we had the TCU Horned Frogs make it. They’ve had some great years in the past with LaDainian Tomlinson, Andy Dalton’s Rose Bowl, and the Gary Patterson era in general, but for a private school in the shadow of Texas and Texas A&M to dismantle the powerhouse of Michigan in the playoff in that thriller, let alone make it over other highly-touted programs in general, shocked many as they were predicted preseason to finish 9th in the Big 12.

In the NBA Finals, the Denver Nuggets coasted to the #1 seed with the 2-time NBA MVP Nikola Jokic, but this is the furthest they’ve ever gone, and they sleep-walked that last month of the regular season. It was a major step forward for a franchise with as little history of playoff success as them by comparison to the Lakers.

Finally, in the Stanley Cup Final, the 8th-seeded Florida Panthers, who fought for their lives to make the postseason, in general, those final weeks, dethroned the Boston Bruins, the team with the best regular season in NHL history. Their route also consisted of spoiling the Maple Leafs’ party and sweeping the Hurricanes. Through their blockbuster trade at the beginning of the year for Matthew Tkachuk by way of moving the 115-point superstar Jonathon Huberdeau, their aggression might completely change the roster moves going forward. Not bad for a hockey hotbed;* checks notes* Miami, Florida.

What we’ve learned this year is that the name on the front of the jersey, from the history of organizational success, from the locations of franchises, from the “large markets” that drive the ratings bonanzas, it all is irrelevant if the team and the coaching staff is good. The product on the field and the court are what you need to be looking at.

Sure, there are teams, players, and coaches with a recent history of having played lots of meaningful games that allow them to keep their composure come playoff time. Still, the idea that the large markets are “better for the league when they’re good” means that we should overlook the surprise teams is simply not logical and entitled.

So, who could be those candidates in the MLB this October? We’re not yet at the All-Star break, leaving plenty of room on the table for other teams to catch fire and return to form, but we’re deep enough into the year where the early successes are beginning to feel real.

These are the teams where you throw out what you know and how you stereotype them due to their payroll, market, or history.

Tampa Bay Rays // 39-18, First in AL East

Is it a hot take to say that the team with the best record in baseball that made the World Series in 2020 should be taken seriously? Not at all. But the reputation of the Rays is that this team with no fans in a ballpark that is an oversized tin can pulls off black magic during the regular season with prospects and players that are worth pennies, manages their healthy by never overworking their starters and using platoon players, only to have their computer-oriented brains outdueled by star power when the postseason comes around.

The Rays and their “black magic” element is still very real- they have the second-youngest roster in the majors at 27.6, they’ve got the third-lowest payroll, and any time they’ve had injuries throughout the year to their rotation like Drew Rasmussen, Shane Baz, or Jeffrey Springs, they simply have another top prospect ready to call up in the clip in someone like a Taj Bradley; they’re permanently deeper than your team because of their capability to recognize and develop talent.

However, this Rays team feels like one that’s built for October in a manner that should be taken as seriously as a high-payroll team with superstars in the way that it’s constructed. They’ve got a traditional ace in Shane McClanahan, they’ve got the fiery superstars that want the moment in Randy Arozarena, Yandy Diaz leading the team with a .340 average and 12 homers, and a superstar phenom in Wander Franco leading in hits and making web gem plays at shortstop that will only continue to get better. The superstars on the team would take over the league if they played in a big market, but they’re lumped with the “small market computer brain” stereotype that comes with playing in Tampa. Well, they’ve still got that depth of their computer-brained black magic in that they have an entire lineup with 9 batters with a WAR above 1.0, but their flaw in the past has not had the superstars that will just play free and embrace the stage with big boppers and flair. This is the Rays team.

Texas Rangers // 35-19, 1st in AL West

The Rangers’ hot start was “cute.” The team that has been entirely irrelevant since the Rougned Odor punch and hadn’t been above .500 in 3 years spent a fortune on two middle-infielders and overpaid a Jacob deGrom that’s falling apart at the seams spent their money to put some faces on a billboard and get some fans in the stands in their new 3-year-old ballpark after irresponsible spending. In a division with the World Series Champion Astros, a Mariners team that’s now on the brink of becoming a contender for years, and a team with Shohei Ohtani and Mike Trout, being in first was only going to last so long, right?

Photo: LM Otero / Associated Press

Wrong. Even without deGrom and Corey Seager missing a large part of the year, the Rangers have been an absolute wagon on BOTH sides of the ball. Their bullpen may come back to bite them with the 5th-highest ERA in the majors, but their starters in a rotation that was completely rebuilt has shoved on the mound for 6 innings+ in almost every conceivable start this year. 4th in ERA and walks allowed, Nathan Eovaldi is 7-2, Jon Gray is 5-1, Martin Perez is 6-1, and Dane Dunning is 4-0. Only two of those outings were below 5 innings, and 8 of those lasted 7 innings or more. They’re full of workhorses.

They’re doing all this while their offense has been, what’s the word? Unstoppable. They lead the league in run-differential at +128 because they score at will with RBI-leading Adolis Garcia and Marcus Semien also in the top-5 in RBI and hits, they get production out of Jonah Heim at catcher (normally an offensive cesspool of a position), and Josh Jung was called up as a rookie with the expectation that he does not play like one given their urgency to win now- Jung is second on the team in WAR with a .283 average and .505 slugging.

We wait for them to fall back to earth as the Astros inevitably take the AL West. Maybe Houston will, but the Rangers have proven that they won’t go away and will be a season-long playoff threat in the American League. Even if one side of the plate regresses, they’re too hot on both sides for that large of a drop-off. Ignore the Rangers of old.

Arizona Diamondbacks // 32-23, 2nd in NL West

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The only Diamondbacks success you remember (aside from a brief but fun Justin Upton era) was when they won the world series as a miracle team in 2001, wearing those fantastic teal and purple uniforms with the big unit Randy Johnson slinging heat to pull off the impossible and dethrone the titanic Yankees. Even then, it doesn’t feel like it happened. 

Let’s face it: the Diamondbacks play in the desert in a lifeless indoor facility, they’re in a division with some of the most well-known franchises in the sport with the Dodgers, the Giants, and this fun iteration of the Padres, they’ve got some of the worst uniforms in sports, and they’re coming off of three straight losing seasons. The bar was not high for the snakes this year.

However, they’ve suddenly become one of the most fun young teams to watch on the west coast! Zac Gallen finished 5th in Cy Young voting last year with his 12-4 record and leading the league in WHIP, and he would easily be must-see TV everywhere else if he wasn’t on the Diamondbacks. Thankfully, with his continued success and the team performing better this year, he’s getting more respect as one of the premier aces of the sport this season. 

They also called up top prospect Corbin Carroll and gave him his extension early, cementing their belief in him being the cornerstone of the franchise at just 22 years old. They were a preseason darling to cause some ruckus in the NL at best, with their perceived “best player” being a gamble with such little experience in the big leagues. Carroll has looked like an NL Rookie of the Year candidate thus far with his unbelievable speed, batting .282 with 14 stolen bases and having some pop in his bat as well. Carroll is the real deal, and his versatility has spread throughout the lineup- with the new rule changes, Arizona has fully taken advantage of putting the ball in play. They strike out the 4th-fewest, they’re top five in extra-base hits, and it’s resulted in a plethora of team success and scoring galore. 

They’ll need pitching depth aside from Gallen and Merrill Kelly, their ERA leader, but fending off the Padres, Giants, and hanging tough with the Dodgers in the NL West, and having a playoff spot if the postseason started today has been incredibly impressive, given their preseason expectations. Torey Lovullo is a manager that will rally the team and make them believe the Snakes can make some noise in October.

Baltimore Orioles // 35-20, 2nd in AL East

These are no longer the Orioles you know that would lose over 90 games and finish either 4th or 5th in the Division every year since 2016. These are no longer the laughing stock Orioles that were mocked amongst a division with the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, and Blue Jays. All of that loss, all of that misery in order to just pivot to accumulate talented youth for the future, is here now.

The Orioles have the third-best record in baseball and the best record over a 162 game-span dating back to last year now that their talent has arrived. Adley Rutschman, their #1 overall catching prospect who debuted last year, feels like he just gets it as the man of the franchise. You think about him standing, taking in his first at-bat romantically, him growing a Top Gun: Maverick mustache in the dugout, and creating fun and absurd college-level atmospheric celebrations that started with a homer hose, a sprinkler of spit, and now a full-on Bird Bath section for the fans to get soaked in Hawaiian shirts, and that’s a man leading the most-fun team in the majors amongst this winning. The romanticism of baseball is paying off in large part now that their cornerstone is establishing a culture while also having incredible plate discipline, leading the majors in walks.

The Orioles just never seem to lose consistency– while they don’t particularly do anything BEST, they’re able to make adjustments- they get production out of new places every night, varying from 7-hole hitter Austin Hays knocking in runs and leading the team with his .315 average to having a night where starter Kyle Gibson will through an 8-inning shutout, and they’ve only had 4 total lost (only one three-game losing streak, the rest only two games) all year long. They’re also running the base paths with ease with their speed in Jorge Mateo and Cedric Mullins, and their bullpen has the third-best ERA in baseball.

They’re well-rounded, they’re having more fun than you, and they’re America’s darlings this year. While they may be doubted because of their history of being an absolute embarrassment of a roster that plans for the future, the future is now. Ignore the laundry.

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