The Thursday Takeaway
Say this for the Rays: They are not going down without a fight. Tampa Bay’s 3-2 win over the White Sox on Thursday night improved the Rays’ winning streak to a season-high eight games, drawing them into a tie with the Angels, two games shy of the Athletics for the American League’s second wild-card berth.
Bridging even that narrow gap in the short span of six games may seem a daunting task, but these are well-charted waters for Joe Maddon’s team. On Sept. 23, 2011, with 156 games in the books and a half-dozen left to play, the Rays were 86-70 and in hot pursuit of the 88-68 Red Sox for what was then the lone wild-card spot. Fast forward a year and five days, and the only difference in the race is the Angels’ presence. The Rays have the exact same record that they did through 156 games in 2011, and the A’s are imitating the Red Sox to a tee.
Armed with one of the junior circuit’s deepest pitching staffs, Tampa Bay has held its opponents to two runs or fewer in five of its past six games, and it has not allowed more than five runs in any game during the ongoing surge. The Rays rank second in the American League with a 3.11 team ERA this month, and that success on the mound has paved the way for a 15-9 September ledger, compensating for the team’s sputtering bats.
Tampa Bay’s remaining schedule—which includes three more games against the White Sox and then a three-game home showdown with the Orioles—is relatively challenging. The A’s, who host the Mariners this weekend, and the Angels, who travel to Seattle after finishing off their series in Arlington, both play three of their last six games against a team well out of the race, while the Rays will see only fellow contenders the rest of the way. But that apparent obstacle could become a blessing if the Rays keep pace with the Orioles this weekend. In fact, Tampa Bay already controls its own destiny: If the Rays manage to win out and push their eight-game run to 14, they will streak right into the wild-card playoff, with a chance to host the game if both Baltimore and Oakland falter.
But since a flawless sprint to the finish line is improbable, the Rays—currently given about a 1-in-10 shot of pulling off an eleventh-hour entry into the playoffs for the second consecutive year—are likely to need help. They need Boston’s Pedro Ciriaco or Seattle’s Brendan Ryan to play the role of Robert Andino. Tampa Bay doesn’t need another collapse to buoy its hopes, but despite enjoying a +108 run differential that is superior to those of Baltimore (-1) and Oakland (+77), it could use a valiant spoiling effort from either the Red Sox or the Mariners to ensure that it will still control its own destiny come Monday.
Thursday’s Rays victory, coupled with the Tigers’ sweep of the Royals, turned this four-game series at U.S. Cellular Field into a make-or-break affair for the White Sox, too. Chicago now trails Detroit by two games in the American League Central, and since it has no hope of earning a wild-card spot, Robin Ventura’s team essentially faces an identical climb to Joe Maddon’s squad.
That figures to make all three of the remaining games worth watching, but Saturday’s matinee—for those fortunate enough to have their FOX affiliate carry it—may be the highlight of the weekend. Two of the league’s most talented southpaws, Matt Moore and Chris Sale, are slated to provide an encore to their duel at Tropicana Field on May 28. In that 2-1 White Sox win, Moore and Sale amassed a combined 25 strikeouts, while coughing up just seven hits in 14 1/3 innings. Adam Dunn, who supplied both Chicago runs by taking Moore deep in the sixth inning of that game, now has 41 home runs on the season, putting him two behind Josh Hamilton for the league lead (Saturday, 4:05 p.m. ET).
What Else to Watch for This Weekend
- Last year, the Orioles finished off the Red Sox’ collapse, and Robert Andino became an unlikely public enemy number one in Boston. Now, as the Sox visit Camden Yards, where the home nine enters one game behind the Yankees, Bobby Valentine’s team has a decision to make—it can try to exact revenge on the O’s, or roll over and put the pressure on New York. Aaron Cook has struggled in all three of his starts against Baltimore this year, coughing up 17 runs (13 earned) in 13 1/3 total innings, and throwing batting practice to Matt Wieters, who is 5-for-7 with four doubles in their 2012 encounters. The Orioles will counter with Chris Tillman, who held Boston to just one run in six innings on Sept. 23, but left with a no-decision in an eventual 2-1 Red Sox win (Friday, 7:05 p.m. ET).
- The Tigers have won four in a row, and as mentioned in the takeaway, they now enjoy a two-game lead over the White Sox in the American League Central. But the 65-91 Twins have been a thorn in Detroit’s side all season long, and as it heads to Target Field, Jim Leyland’s team is just 8-7 versus Ron Gardenhire’s after dropping both ends of the doubleheader at Comerica Park this past Sunday. Lefty Scott Diamond, who gets the ball for the Twins in the opener, has been particularly troublesome to Detroit hitters, tossing seven innings of two-run ball both times he faced them. Diamond will do battle with Drew Smyly, who starts in place of the injured Max Scherzer, tonight (Friday, 8:10 p.m. ET).
- When the Giants acquired Marco Scutaro on July 27, they expected an uptick in the second baseman’s production, but could not have foreseen the gaudy numbers he has amassed since the trade. The 36-year-old Scutaro is now riding a career-high 15-game hitting streak, and he has logged 14 multi-hit games this month, while striking out only three times. That’s not a misprint: Scutaro is 38-for-92 (.413 average) with five walks and three strikeouts in September. He’ll try to stay classy in San Diego, as the Giants kick off a three-game series versus the Padres, with Ryan Vogelsong and Andrew Werner set to lock horns in the opener (Friday, 10:05 p.m. ET).
- Jason Vargas has prevailed in most of his encounters with Yoenis Cespedes this season, limiting the rookie outfielder to just two hits in 13 at-bats. Unfortunately for Vargas, though, those two knocks were both big flies, including this bomb in the A’s home opener on April 6—which remains one of the most impressive home runs of the season—and this one at Safeco Field on June 26. Vargas and Cespedes will match wits again in game two of the weekend tilt at the Coliseum, which the A’s enter with a magic number of five (Saturday, 4:05 p.m. ET).
- When it comes to disappointing 2012 campaigns, relative to expectations, Roy Halladay is in a class of his own. The 35-year-old missed two months with a lat strain, and he has not settled into his typical, dominant groove since returning from the disabled list on July 17. Halladay’s most recent outing, in which he was shelled for seven runs in just 1 2/3 innings by the Braves, marked only the second time in his career that he had been charged with that many runs without completing at least two frames. And the other time, which came exactly 12 years ago today, Halladay appeared in relief of Chris Carpenter, and none of the seven runs he allowed were earned.
As Sam Miller pointed out on Sept. 10, Halladay has not delivered a single complete game in his 24 starts this year, and this weekend’s assignment at Marlins Park is likely his last opportunity to extend an 11-year streak. The last (and only previous) time when Halladay went a full season without recording a complete game, he made 19 trips to the mound (13 starts), and took home a 10.64 ERA. To go the distance in game two against the Fish, Halladay will need to be careful with Giancarlo Stanton and Greg Dobbs, who each boast four hits, including a homer, off of him this season (Saturday, 7:10 p.m. ET).
- Angels manager Mike Scioscia gave Mark Trumbo the day off on Thursday, and the second-year slugger certainly needed it, having gone just 7-for-58 (.121 average) with one extra-base hit, two walks, and 23 strikeouts this month. Trumbo’s 322 September OPS ranks dead last among American League regulars, and he needs to get things together post haste with the Halos still two games behind the A’s and only six left to play. Don’t miss the finale of the three-game series in Arlington, which pits Zack Greinke against Yu Darvish in what might be the duel of the weekend (Sunday, 3:05 p.m. ET).