September 13, 2011
Going into Tuesday's play, the Rays were only three games behind the Red Sox for that wild-card spot. The standings certainly say they're in this thing.
But the Red Sox look awfully vulnerable right now. The Rays have been better in several areas, which is why they can overtake Boston in the season's final weeks.
1. The pressure's off: Are the Rays feeling any pressure now that they're back in the wild-card race? You wouldn't know it from manager Joe Maddon, who's known for holding pregame media sessions with the Blue Man Group or wearing a football helmet at his desk after the game. Why would the Rays be feeling any pressure? Even their owner thinks this whole run has been "wonderfully improbable."
Meanwhile, the Red Sox weren't just supposed to make the playoffs. After adding Carl Crawford(notes) and Adrian Gonzalez(notes) to their lineup, Boston was a near-consensus World Series pick in the preseason. And even if they hadn't added those players, the expectation is always to win the division and contend for a championship. What if they didn't even make the playoffs? "Sweet Caroline" would never sound sadder.
2. More, more, Moore: The Rays just brought one heck of a weapon out of their trunk, calling up Matt Moore(notes) from Triple-A Durham. Moore has been one of the top prospects in baseball this season, compiling a 12-3 record and 1.93 ERA between Durham and Class AA Birmingham. In 155 innings, he's struck out 210 batters.
Moore joins another top prospect, outfielder Desmond Jennings(notes), who's given the Rays a regular left fielder. Jennings has slumped recently, lowering his slash average to .293/.381/.521, but he's helped to provide a major reinforcement to the Tampa Bay roster.
3. Who's pitching Tuesday night? If there's one area where the Rays have had a clear advantage recently, it's their starting pitching.
James Shields(notes) throws a complete game almost every time he takes the mound. Jeremy Hellickson(notes) has allowed three runs or fewer in 10 of his past 11 starts. Wade Davis(notes) has a nasty new cut fastball. And David Price has been pitching his best baseball of the season (1.64 ERA over his past six starts).
Jon Lester(notes) has been typically great for the Red Sox. But after him, there's currently not much left standing in their rotation. John Lackey's(notes) ERA is up to 6.30 after allowing 15 runs in his past 15 innings. Andrew Miller(notes) hasn't been much better. Tim Wakefield(notes) can't make it out of the sixth inning, and is winless since mid-July. And Kyle Weiland(notes)? Well, he has three career major league starts.
4. How do you spell relief? Jonathan Papelbon(notes) has been great as Boston's closer, but he hasn't had too many games to save lately because the bullpen can't hand him a lead. Daniel Bard(notes) has a 17.18 ERA this month, blown up by a five-run inning on Sept. 7. Dan Wheeler(notes) is carrying a 10.38 ERA. Matt Albers(notes) has been awful since July, compiling an ERA over 11.00. Can Alfredo Aceves(notes) (2.23 ERA since August) pitch every night?
For the Rays, Kyle Farnsworth(notes) has been out with a sore elbow recently. But their bullpen depth has helped cover for his absence. Joel Peralta(notes) has been outstanding, with only two runs allowed in his last 14 appearances. Juan Cruz(notes) has 12 strikeouts in his last 11 2/3 innings. And Cesar Ramos(notes) and J.P. Howell(notes) have pitched effectively, with no runs allowed so far this month.
5. Steppin' up: The Rays are in this position largely because their top players are playing their best baseball of the season. Evan Longoria(notes) hit 10 home runs in August, and has an OPS of .955 thus far in September. Matt Joyce's(notes) OPS this month is 1.088. Even B.J. Upton(notes) is getting into this, posting a 1.151 OPS. And we already went over the pitching.
Compare that to Dustin Pedroia(notes), who's hitting .156/.174/.267 in September. Kevin Youkilis(notes) has struggled for two months, battling hip bursitis and the onset of a sports hernia. J.D. Drew(notes) hasn't played since mid-July and has a broken finger.
Adrian Gonzalez (1.071 OPS in Sept.), Jacoby Ellsbury(notes) (1.051) and David Ortiz(notes) (eight homers, 1.330 OPS in August) have done all they can to keep the Red Sox offense rolling. But all the injuries to the lineup and pitching staff have seemed to take their toll.