Reeling Red Sox keep Rays in race

The Tampa Bay Rays faced their biggest remaining pitching challenge on paper Saturday night with Toronto Blue Jays ace Ricky Romero and his 2.98 ERA taking the hill against them. Knowing that the Boston Red Sox had already been tattooed by a score of 9-1 in Yankee Stadium no doubt eased the burden of facing Romero and the Jays, but the Rays stepped up with a huge 6-2 win to pull within a game and a half of the Red Sox in the American League wild-card race, as Johnny Damon’s eighth-inning home run expanded their one-run lead to a comfortable margin.

The game was a reversal of an unfortunate trend for Tampa Bay whereby the Rays kept dropping huge opportunities to draw closer to the Red Sox. They weren’t able to take advantage of the Sox dropping three out of four to the Baltimore Orioles, as they posted the same record in a four-game set against the Yankees. Their competition was much tougher than Baltimore, but they had both James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson throwing in that series, yet it was rookie phenom Matt Moore who bailed them out with a fourth-game win in his first big league start.

The odds are still stacked against the Rays by virtue of the fact they are trailing with four games left (five for the Red Sox, including a day-night doubleheader Sunday), but they have a discernible advantage with their starting pitching the rest of the way. This should come as no surprise, as pitching is the only reason they are in this race in the first place. Their 684 runs scored are just one better than the lowly Orioles and 168 behind the powerful Red Sox. However, their 600 runs allowed is an American League-best -- made more impressive by the fact that they have to face Sox and Yanks 18 times apiece and they don’t get to face their own offense at any point during the season.

Sunday’s finale against the Blue Jays pits Wade Davis against Brett Cecil and should be the only one of the remaining games where the opposing hurler is anything close to equal to what the Rays are putting on the mound. Davis has faced the Blue Jays four times this year with mixed results. His composite numbers yield a 4.90 ERA and 1.56 WHIP in 26 innings of work thanks in large part to a six earned-run outing in just 4 1/3 innings on Aug. 29 in Toronto. On one hand, he has had success against the Jays in more starts than not (3.36 ERA in the three starts before that bad game), but on the other hand his most recent effort was his worst and it was just a month ago.

While it’s true that wins count the same no matter when they come, the Rays essentially need to win all four games on their schedule, but a win Sunday would be especially nice because the Red Sox have that doubleheader and there could be a major momentum shift one way or another depending on the outcome of Sunday’s three games. As a stats-oriented baseball fan, I read a lot of stuff that eschews any notion of momentum, but that seems to sometimes forget that these games are played by human beings, not automatons programmed to achieve their peak potential on a daily basis. This isn’t an anti-stats screed on any level, just an acknowledgment of the fact that a Rays win on Sunday afternoon paired with a Red Sox split or pair of losses would be a colossal boost for the Rays. The first outcome would leave the Rays down by one, the second with the teams tied with three games to play.

Even with the playoff fate of their hated rival on the line and their own playoff fate sealed, the Yankees aren’t going to lay down to the Rays in the season’s final series, but CC Sabathia is done pitching for the regular season, while the Rays have their three best established hurlers going in Shields, Hellickson and David Price. The Yankees are throwing Phil Hughes, Bartolo Colon and TBD.

Hughes has looked sharp in his past two starts (albeit against Baltimore and Seattle), but he draws Shields, who has been masterful against the Yankees this year (and everybody else) with a 2.40 ERA and 1.03 WHIP in 30 innings across four starts. However, “Big Game” James is just 1-3 in those outings thanks to a combined five runs of support.

Meanwhile, Colon was trounced in the Moore game on Thursday and has really labored the past two months (5.08 ERA and 1.37 WHIP in 62 innings). He will square off against Hellickson, who has a pair of seven IP, two-run outings against the Yankees sandwiched by a flameout start of four earned runs in the Bronx in August.

It won’t really matter who Price faces because it won’t be Sabathia, meaning advantage Rays. Price has been a mixed bag against the Yankees with two great starts and two poor ones resulting in a composite 4.26 ERA and 1.30 WHIP in 25 innings, but he thrives on big situations against the best teams. He has a 2.91 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in 149 innings against teams with winning records this year. If Wednesday's game has significance, Price bringing his best stuff will be the least of Tampa Bay’s concerns.

Though they are fighting for a berth into the real playoffs, make no mistake that the Rays are in the playoffs already. They can ill afford to lose again the rest of the way and, while the Red Sox are the targets, the Rays also need to be mindful of the Angels, who are still trying to make this a three-team race over the next four days. Sunday sets the tone for the final series of all three teams since Boston plays two games; if it loses both, the Rays become the favorite due to their significant pitching advantage in the season’s final series.

Not only will the Rays hold the advantage with all three starting pitching matchups in their final series, but they still have Moore -- who wasn’t the least bit intimidated by the Yankees as he fanned 11 and shut them out for five innings -- on hand should they need him in a key spot out of the bullpen. Their offense, an Achilles heel for most of the season, is peaking at the right time with 4.7 runs per game in September, well above its 4.3 average for the season.

As we saw a previously race-less finish develop into a dogfight for the AL wild card, it is hard not to continually ask what would have happened if the Rays had removed Sam Fuld and his .302 wOBA for Desmond Jennings much sooner than July 23.

We can wonder and second-guess the decision, but it’s better to focus on the fact that they still have a real chance at this despite that egregious error, even while acknowledging that there is no excuse for leaving Jennings down that long. There is enough negativity in baseball (whether on blogs, major websites or Twitter) that sometimes it clouds the greatness in the game, like an amazing down-to-the-wire race between David (with his $42 million payroll) and Goliath (shelling out $164 million). With four days left on the schedule, sit back and enjoy this one.


Paul Sporer writes at Pitt Plank, the little piece of Piracy in the SweetSpot network.