ST. PETERSBURG — The pennant race is here. The disappointment is just around the corner.
Too harsh? Overly pessimistic? Yeah, I agree, but I’m not sure the stars are quite aligned for the Rays in September.
Oh, they’ll make the playoffs. They have an 8 ½-game lead on Toronto for the final wild-card spot and this team is too good for that kind of collapse.
No, I’m talking about catching the Orioles in the American League East. The division title is certainly within reach. Heck, the Rays could be back in first place before we reach the weekend, so suggesting their fate is already sealed on Aug. 29 is either stupid or nuts. Probably both.
The Rays need only to be a handful of games better than Baltimore during the next 34 days, but there’s one problem with that scenario: The Orioles have been better than Tampa Bay for the past 120 days.
It’s true, since May 1 the Orioles are 62-40 and the Rays are 57-46. That’s not a small sample size. That’s almost two-thirds of the regular season, and it suggests the Orioles did not arrive by fluke or happenstance. The only thing keeping the Rays close in this race is that 23-6 sprint they got off to in March/April.
And the reality is, the Rays are not the same team they were in that first month. Jeffrey Springs, Drew Rasmussen and Shane McClanahan are all out for the season. That’s three starting pitchers with a combined ERA of 2.87 and a 17-4 record.
Wander Franco’s availability in September is looking bleak, and Randy Arozarena is hitting .218 with four home runs and a .676 OPS since the All-Star break. So, along with losing three of their top five pitchers, there are huge question marks about two of their top hitters, too.
Yes, you could argue the Rays have found their footing again. They have gone 15-8 so far in August and, going into Monday night’s games, that was the third-best record in the AL for the month. Unfortunately, the Orioles are one of the two teams that had done better.
The other problem is Baltimore looks to have an easier finish to the regular season. Counting Monday night, the Orioles have 15 games remaining against teams with losing records. Tampa Bay has only six. The Rays also have 17 road games among their final 30.
If there is reason for hope, it’s four games of head-to-head baseball beginning Sept. 14 in Baltimore. Win three of those four games, and the Rays pick up two games in the standings.
But, again, that requires a modicum of faith. The Rays have gone 3-6 against the Orioles this season, including 1-2 at Camden Yards.
Can the Rays pull it off? Of course, they can. History is full of teams that have exceeded expectations in the final month of a season. The Rays did it in 2019 when they were tied for the final wild-card spot with 30 games remaining, and promptly went 20-10 to clinch a playoff spot.
They went 18-12 to catch a reeling Boston team in the wild-card race in 2011, and they outplayed the Yankees over the final 30 games in 2010 to go from one game behind to one game ahead in the East.
So what would it take to catch the Orioles in 2023?
It would help tremendously if the Blue Jays drive into the ditch in the next couple of weeks because six of Tampa Bay’s final eight games are against Toronto. Also, Baltimore’s bullpen has lost All-Star closer Felix Bautista to an elbow injury and setup man Mike Baumann was sent to Triple A so the team could monitor his workload and give him a reset.
Even if the breaks go their way, it would probably take 18 to 20 wins for the Rays considering the ease of Baltimore’s schedule.
And while it may seem greedy to focus on the division title with one of the three wild-cards easily in reach, the difference could be critical in the postseason. Ideally, the Rays would prefer to use Tyler Glasnow, Zach Eflin and Aaron Civale as much as possible in the playoffs with either Zack Littell or Taj Bradley in limited roles. Avoiding the best-of-three wild-card round would go a long way toward setting the rotation up for a longer postseason run.
None of this is meant to throw a tarp across the next 34 days. Going into September with the division title in reach is what fans dream about. The Rays have already provided five months of top-notch baseball and there’s no reason to think September will be any different.
They just might need a little more good fortune than we’ve seen recently.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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