July 23rd, 2013
By Rich Bergeron
The Tampa Bay Rays came into Monday night’s four-game series opener against the Boston Red Sox with an impressive 58-41 record, which would be good enough to lead virtually every other division in the Major Leagues.
Only the Red Sox (60-40) and the St. Louis Cardinals (59-37) had better records than the Rays. Tampa Bay was sitting just 1½ games out of first place going into this series (With last night’s win, they are only a ½ game out). Prior to the first pitch of Monday’s game, the Rays had a lousy 3-9 record against Boston.
Knowing they had to be content with the wild card if they couldn’t find a way to beat the Sox, the Rays are now 4-9 against Boston. But it’s still only one game.
Meanwhile, the Baltimore Orioles started a four-game series of their own Monday night against the Kansas City Royals. The Orioles then roll into Boston for a three-game stand against the Red Sox on Friday, and they faced a 3½-game deficit going into Monday’s game. But the Orioles carry a 5-2 head-to-head record against the Sox into their series opener.
Both the Orioles and Rays have the best chance to take over first place in the division, but it could take a long Red Sox losing streak for either team to capitalize on the threat. The surging Sox seem to be getting all the breaks this year, and their last game against the Yankees Sunday was living proof.
First baseman Mike Napoli hit a home run to end the game with two outs in the bottom of the 11th inning and gave the team their ninth walk-off win of the season. That’s the most for any team in the league right now. The contributions are also coming from every corner of this team. Multiple players, who haven’t been as productive in years past, are chipping in to make the Red Sox a prominent World Series contender.
The fact that the arch-rival Yankees are reeling from multiple injuries puts the Orioles and Rays in a better position to challenge the Red Sox, unlike years past.
So which of these two could end up in first place in the AL East?
As far as head-to-head match-ups, the Orioles have 12 games left against the Sox, while the Rays will get only one more three-game series in September against the division leader before the regular season ends.
The Orioles will actually end the season with three games at Fenway Park, so if they’re still within striking distance at that point, a sweep could be the key to their whole season. That gives the Orioles the best chance to take first if they can do it in those remaining games against Boston.
Looking more closely at the overall talent of these two squads, they are both offensive juggernauts, but Tampa Bay has the much better pitching staff. The Rays rank third in the league in Batting Average Against (.236) and 12th in both Quality Starts (53) and ERA (3.81).
Meanwhile, the Orioles have a dismal .262 Batting Average Against (26th in the league), 48 quality starts (19th), and a 4.33 ERA (28th). Â
Even on offense, the Rays are far more balanced with no single player leading all the major statistical categories as first baseman Chris Davis does for the Orioles. Davis leads the team in batting average (.312), home runs (37), RBIs (94), and runs scored (72).
Third baseman Evan Longoria leads the Rays in home runs (20) and RBIs (55), but he has company among the leaders with first baseman James Loney leading the team in batting average (.314) and center fielder Desmond Jennings scoring the most runs (65) for the Rays.
Both teams rank among the top 10 teams in most of the offensive categories, but the Rays have more consistent numbers overall. For instance, the Orioles are better than any other team in terms of slugging percentage (.446), but they rank 15th in on base percentage (.317).Â
Neither team faces any season-altering injuries at the moment, which is a plus. The Red Sox (who do face that scenario) will only get better once Starting Pitcher Clay Buchholtz (9-0, 1.71 ERA, 81 Ks) returns to the rotation. Only two games separated the Rays and Orioles from each other going into Monday night’s games, so their respective odds on winning first place are not really that much different.
But, should the Rays win the current series against Boston and gain ground, their odds of taking first will increase tremendously.
If the Orioles can’t keep up their winning streak against the Royals and go into Boston in a slump, they’ll be more likely to leave Boston beaten and battered once the dust settles. So it really may be the most important week of baseball in the American League East.
It’s all about head-to-head play.
Right now both teams have a realistic shot at getting to first place, but if the Sox put the pedal to the metal and get some distance between them and those trailing behind, it might turn out to be a race for the wild card for these teams.
Either way, both teams are playing great baseball with the tools they have and the conditions they’re facing. These factors make the division one of the most exciting to watch as the second half of the season gets underway.