There is a scene in Donald Westlake’s The Score in which all the thieves sit around and discuss an absurd plot to rob an entire town in one night. After fleshing out enough of the details, it dawns on everyone involved that this seemingly implausible plan is all too possible. The Rays’ intentions are less malicious, but their own scheme to steal riches from another’s pocket began to look more realistic after the events of this past weekend.
On Friday morning, the Rays trailed the Red Sox in the Wild Card race by 6 1/2 games. Tampa Bay had 20 games remaining, including seven against Boston. Was that a surmountable deficit? Sure. Was it likely to be surmounted? Both intuition and our Playoff Odds answered a resounding “no.” Still, days can feel like weeks during the final leg of a pennant chase, and over the course of three days, the Rays cut three games off of Boston’s lead. A three-game lead with 17 games to go—including four head-to-head matchups—looks a lot more feasible.
In historical terms, the Rays are attempting mission impossible, or at least a mission never accomplished before. Jayson Stark tweeted Sunday that no team has ever made up 7 1/2 or more games during September, but the Rays are trying to come back from being 9 1/2 games back earlier in the month. Skipper Joe Maddon, never one to buy into putative truths, has been spreading the tale of the 1995 California Angels to everyone who would listen since mid-August. That team, of which Maddon was a part, held an 11-1/2 game lead on August 22 and wound up trailing the Mariners by September 22. A successful Rays surge would not be as steep, but it would have to occur in a similarly quick fashion.
Sparking the Rays’ run are the bats of Matt Joyce (1145 OPS in September), Evan Longoria (1089), and B.J. Upton (1054). Otherwise, the offense has sputtered a bit, with only one other regular (defined in this sense by having 20-plus plate appearances in September) having an OPS above 700. Designated hitter Johnny Damon (649), first baseman Casey Kotchman (683), and even the usually dependable Ben Zobrist (468) have struggled, but the Rays have stayed afloat behind strong run prevention. The Rays lead the league in plain ol’ defensive efficiency (.734, with the second-place team all the way back at .721), and park-adjusted alike (four percent, whereas second place is at 1.77 percent).
All that fly-trapping is a positive development for the rotation—the real strength of the Rays. Staff leader James Shields went from being called Big Game James in 2008 to Yields in 2010, but his new nicknames are Juego G and Complete Game James. Shields has thrown 11 complete games this season, but that doesn’t tell the entire story. In 29 of Shields’ 31 starts, he has gone six or more innings, and in 26 of those games he has gone seven-plus innings. Shields is the longest-tenured Rays player (drafted in 2000), making him the Mrs. Butterworth of the club, and his redemption song has been a season-long exercise.
How the Rays would replace their mostly departed bullpen was a hot topic over the winter, and the answer has been by riding their rotation. Aiding Shields in keeping the middle relievers in the bullpen has been David Price (owner of a 604 OPS against in two September starts), Wade Davis (523, plus a complete game against Boston), and Jeremy Hellickson (535). Jeff Niemann has been the worst of the bunch, with two poor starts so far; otherwise, no starting pitcher for the Rays has had an outing shorter than six innings in September, while those four have compiled three complete games already.
Compare that success to Boston’s rotation, which has two complete games to its credit all season and has had five of its 11 September starts last fewer than five innings (including all three against the Rays), and it’s easy to see why we have a playoff race. Add in injuries to key Boston players like Clay Buchholz, Kevin Youkilis, and even an ankle injury to Josh Beckett, and the Red Sox are treading water at the worst possible time. If there is good news for Boston, it comes in the form of the remaining strength of schedules. The key is that while the two teams share the same opponents, Boston receives a more favorable distribution. The Red Sox’ remaining opponents, when weighed by games remaining, have a 49.1 winning percentage, as opposed to the Rays opponents and their 54.6 winning percentage.
The road ahead will not be an easy one for the Rays, and their chances of reaching the postseason are still minute. They also have to go on with their best reliever, Kyle Farnsworth, suffering from elbow tenderness. Luckily for Maddon, Andrew Friedman is not resting on his laurels and chose to promote the best pitching prospect in baseball, Matt Moore, with the intent to use him in the bullpen. That could be a temporary fix, as it appears Moore will make a start against the Yankees during a day-night doubleheader (Moore and Alex Torres had been the two names bandied about, but as of now only Moore has been recalled).
Say what you will about depending on a 22-year-old during the throes of a playoff race, but Moore is an atypical 22-year-old with a comely fastball and the secondary stuff to match. This season alone, Moore made 27 starts and allowed 39 runs, or about 1.44 per game (without worrying about the earned run designation or prorating innings to a per-nine basis). Moore also struck out 210 batters in 155 innings pitched and walked just 46 (although he did place another six batters on via plunking). The hype train has been rolling for Moore since before the 2010 season, and a Future Games appearance earlier this year piqued interest further, as Moore repeatedly tossed bold flavors of heat by the best hitting prospects in the game.
Whether Moore’s presence will help the Rays rob the Wild Card from the Red Sox remains to be seen, and Boston should still be considered the heavy favorites, but this weekend taught us two lessons: 1) the Red Sox making the playoffs is no longer a fait accompli; and 2) an extra 2%’s worth of playoff odds has made the last couple weeks of the season much more interesting.