When the mighty, mighty Red Sox followed their offseason spending spree with an 0-6 start to the regular season, the baseball world was left stunned, jaw drooping. But Boston and its calm manager, Terry Franconca, didn’t show a hint of panic.
Then they were .500 by mid-May and in first place by the end of May.
And all was well in Red Sox Nation.
But now? Well, the mood has soured significantly.
“Hell, yeah, you’ve got to panic,” said the big, blunt slugger, David Ortiz.
Just when we thought that for the first time in the fun-filled wild-card era, there wasn’t going to be any stretch-run races worth watching, all of a sudden there are three stretch-run races worth watching.
One is the National League wild card, as the hobbled Braves try to hold off the charging Cardinals. Another is in American League West, where the Rangers and Angels are fighting for the honor of being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
And the other is making for some very nervous fans in New England, as the care-free Rays continue to draw closer to the Red Sox in the AL wild-card race.
Tampa Bay just won again tonight, 5-2 over hapless Baltimore, and now stands just three games back of Boston with 16 games to go — four of which happen to be against the Red Sox at Fenway Park this weekend.
As late as Sept. 3, a mere nine days ago, the Rays were a whopping nine games back of a postseason spot. But now they’ve won eight of nine, including this weekend’s stunning three-game sweep of the Red Sox, who’ve dropped 10 of their last 13 games.
Now, three games still is a lot to make up in just a little over two weeks. But there are a whole host of analysts jumping on the Rays bandwagon, and there are a number of reasons why.
The main one, of course, is starting pitching.
The Red Sox are an absolute mess in this area, partly because of injuries. Three-fifths of the projected Opening Day rotation is on the shelf — Daisuke Matsuzaka (elbow surgery) was lost for the year in mid-May; Clay Buchholz (stress fracture in back) has been out since mid-June; and ace Josh Beckett (ankle), who’s having a phenomenal season, hasn’t pitched in more than a week and it’s not exactly clear when he’ll pitch again.
Both Buchholz and Beckett are reportedly progressing, so that’s good news. At first, the team certainly was just oncerned with getting those two back for the postseason. Now, though, the Red Sox might have to get them back just to get into the postseason.
Right now, the Red Sox are relying on a grab bag of starters — with only lefty Jon Lester the slightest bit reliable. They’re still running out Tim Wakefield, who seems to have been trying for win No. 200 since 1993, and John Lackey, one-half of the East Coast Bust Brothers (with fellow $82.5 million man A.J. Burnett). And they’re still rolling the dice with ex-Tiger Andrew Miller and his 5.58 ERA, and counting way too much on Kyle Weiland, who has exactly four major league starts to his credit.
Then there’s Kevin Youkilis, a key bat who’s trying to play through a sports hernia. Ouch.
Meanwhile, Rays manager Joe Maddon — now the clear front-runner for AL manager of the year, having kept his club in the hunt despite major offseason losses (Carl Crawford, Matt Garza, Carlos Pena, Joaquin Benoit, Rafael Soriano, etc.) — is running out a rotation that’s far superior to the Red Sox’. Guys like James Shields, who apparently considers it a sin to throw eight innings or fewer; David Price, who’s racking up the quality starts; rookie of the year candidate Jeremy Hellickson; as well as Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis.
This weekend’s pitching matchups could look something like this: Hellickson (12-10, 2.96) vs. Lackey (12-12, 6.30), Shields (15-10, 2.70) vs. Weiland (0-1, 6.75), Niemann (10-7, 3.97) vs. Lester (15-7, 3.07), and Price (12-10, 3.40) vs. Wakefield (6-6, 5.03). That’s assuming Beckett and Buchholz don’t come back, and that the Red Sox don’t take advantage of Monday’s off day and skip one of their struggling starters. Miller also could find himself starting one of those games.
Umm, yeah, it sure doesn’t take Bill James to tell me that’s advantage Rays, right there.
Tampa Bay’s offense, meanwhile, is starting to pick it up a bit, too. Evan Longoria appears to be finding his stroke late in an otherwise tough year, Desmond Jennings has given them some life at the top of the order, Casey Kotchman’s having the best season of his career, and Johnny Damon’s still showing some game a year removed from an underwhelming Tigers tenure.
Seventeen days ago, the Tigers left St. Petersburg having taken three of four. That series solidified Detroit as the AL Central front-runner, and seemingly left Tampa Bay for dead, only clinging to a shred of playoff hope.
Now, though, the Rays’ dream is very much alive.
And don’t think for a second that both them and the Red Sox don’t know it.
“If we keep on playing like that, we’ll be home in the tub,”Adrian Gonzalez told the Boston Globe.
Said Maddon, to the St. Petersburg Times: “It’s hard to take that boulder and start pushing it back the other way.”
If there is one thing favoring the Red Sox, however, it’s the remaining schedule. It’s definitely more manageable than the Rays’. Left for Boston, other than the Tampa Bay series: two more with Toronto, three with New York (at Yankee Stadium) and seven with Baltimore. The Rays, meanwhile, have games left with all the same teams, but only two more games with the Orioles and seven with the Yankees (four on the road).