Rays of Hope

“You’ve got to believe it. If we didn’t learn anything from last year you have to keep playing until you’re mathematically eliminated. In the meantime, believe that you can — and I do.” – Joe Maddon, commenting on his belief that the Rays can still make the playoffs

If any team in baseball history can pull of miracle finishes in back-to-back seasons it would have to be the Maddon-led Tampa Bay Rays. In 2011 the team sat 9 games back of a playoff spot on September 3rd before racing to a 16-8 finish to edge out the Red Sox and ride into the history books. Well, this year the Rays are vying to repeat history in what may turn out to be even more unlikely fashion. Tampa Bay is trying join the 1964 St. Louis Cardinals and the 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers as the only teams to make up a 6 game deficit in the standings with 14 or fewer games left. Led by a strong pitching staff, a finally healthy Evan Longoria, and a surging BJ Upton, the Rays have already cut the deficit in half. And thanks to a potentially favorable schedule the rest of the way, they have the chance to do much, much more.

The Wild Card standings entering play today look a little something like this:

  1. Baltimore Orioles        88-67   —
  2. Oakland A’s                87-67   —
  3. Los Angeles Angels    85-69   2 games back
  4. Tampa Bay Rays         84-70  3 games back

Tampa Bay will have to make the climb over at least two of those teams if they want to make the playoffs. They have one game remaining against the Boston Red Sox before heading to Chicago to play a monster 4 game set that may very well work as an elimination series. If the Rays emerge from US Cellular with their playoff chances still intact by winning at least 3 of 4, that sets up a potential do-or-die series at the Trop against the O’s.

Baltimore has a game left with Toronto and 3 with Boston, who no doubt will be licking the chops at the chance to return the favor for last years collapse by playing spoiler to the Orioles. Oakland is also starring at five more games against AL-best Texas with 3 against Seattle. Neither of those series should prove to be easy for the A’s, especially with the Mariners showing some signs of life since the All-Star break. Again, a lot would have to work in Tampa Bay’s favor if they want to make the playoffs, and that’s before even mentioning the Angels who are hot and have 3 games against Texas sandwiched around 5 games against the Mariners. But I think they can do it.

First and foremost, they have the best pitching staff in baseball. The Rays are tied with Washington for the best staff ERA in baseball at 3.26, and they lead the American League in the following categories: fewest hits allowed, fewest runs allowed, strikeouts, WHIP, and fewest homeruns allowed. Aside from walks, the Rays excel at every facet of pitching, thanks in no small part to guys like David Price.

Price has to be considered the Cy Young award frontrunner at this point with one start left to go on his season. He picked up his American League-leading 19th win last night, hurling a complete game while striking out a season-high 13 batters. Price displayed the full smorgasbord of his abilities last night, making batters look absolutely foolish by mixing in his excellent curveball and change-up with an overpowering 95-97 mph fastball. Last night’s start dropped his ERA to a Major League-best 2.56 and he ranks in the top-10 in the AL in a bevy of other categories including: innings pitched, strikeouts, ERA+, WAR, and WHIP.

He’s also durable too. The left-hander has thrown at least 7 innings in all but 2 starts dating back to the middle of June (17 starts) and he’s allowed more than 3 earned runs just once over the time frame. Price is dominant against righties and lefties, exhibiting no noticeable split differences, and he rises to the occasion with runners on base, holding opposing hitters to a .226 batting average. Basically, he’s everything you would want and more out of a just turned 27-year-old in his 4th season as a big league starter.

The rest of the staff isn’t too shabby either. James Shields has been piling up the punch outs since the All-Star break, striking out 93 batters while posting the 2nd best WHIP in baseball over the time span, only trailing Kris Medlen’s historic roll. Alex Cobb and Matt Moore have also made big strides down the stretches of their first full seasons in a big league rotation. Both pitchers have posted mid-3.00 ERAs after flirting with the mid-4.00s and in the first half. Jeremy Hellickson is also in the mix, as he continues to infuriate hitters and stat nerds (particularly those who love FIP, or fielding independent pitching) alike by having so much success despite such a pedestrian strikeout rate. These four are all slated to make 2 more starts apiece, and Tampa Bay will need each and every one of those to come with some quality.

The Rays will also need to keep the recent offensive boom going as well. They’ve averaged 8.5 runs per game over their recent 6 game winning streak and have already scored more in September than they did in August despite playing 6 games fewer. BJ Upton has hit 10 homers over his last 25 games and Evan Longoria has been a boon to the offense since his return from injury, hitting 9 homers and 30 RBI in 43 games. Combine that with Ben Zobrist, who has 2 homers, 12 RBI, and a .372 average over the past 2 weeks and you have the makings of a decent offense. The Rays have the best record in baseball (69-13, .841 win %) if they can score at least 4 runs, because their pitching staff can usually make that type of lead hold up. With some more strong offensive play, dominant starting pitching, and a little bit of help along the way, who says Tampa can’t sneak into the Wild Card spot? After all, it’s already happened once.

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