Tampa Bay is trying to pull off a feat as improbable as the Colorado Rockies run in 2007. Maybe as improbable as the ’51 Giants in the fact that they are doing this in the American League East, the toughest division in baseball. They’re not there yet, but the Rays are now just 5.5 games back of the Red Sox for the Wild Card with 19 games to play. They’re only 5 games back in the loss column.
These teams play two more games at the Trop this weekend, then face off at Fenway in a four-game series at the end of next week. Depending on whether the Red Sox can bounce back from injuries and poor pitching performances, they may find themselves on the receiving end of a comeback for the ages.
On August 1, 2011 the Rays found themselves 9 games back of the Wild Card behind the Yankees and the Angels. Since that date, they have gone 23-13. They’re 15 games above .500 and hold a (slightly) better record than the Angels who are in a much better position for a postseason appearance. While 5.5 games back with 19 games to go is not an enviable position, it’s a better position than the Rays were in on September 1st. They were 8.5 games back with just 24 to play. All but out of the play-off picture much like the White Sox, Indians, and Giants are now. But now, they’re back in it. They’ve delayed the discussions of what is sure to be another off-season of “rebuilding” and firmly planted themselves in the play-off discussions instead.
What makes this feat even more remarkable is where this team was at the end of the 2010 season. Almost a year ago today, on September 22, 2010, Rays owner Stuart Stenberg all but declared the death of competitive baseball in Tampa Bay. He told reporters the Rays would be cutting payroll no matter what. Not an encouraging sign for a team on its way to another postseason berth and a fan base hoping a deep run would bolster the team’s finances. He said the team would cut payroll in the off-season by $22 million at least, maybe more. We won’t have an accurate picture of what the Rays spent in 2011 until after the season concludes, but it sure looks like a team with a $50 million payroll rather than a $72 million payroll. But they’re still winning. In the American League East.
Surprisingly, the Rays have managed to compete with offense and fielding more than pitching. Sure they have “Complete Game”‘ Shields and David Price, but outside of those two pitchers, the rotation is not very good. Shields and Price have combined for 9.5 WAR this season. The other three starters have combined for only 4.3 WAR (According to Fangraphs). But they’ve made up for it on offense. They’re offensive WAR of 24.5 ranks them only behind the Red Sox, Yankees, and Rangers. They’ve stole the third most bases in the American League and have the third best success rate for stolen bases. They’re 41.8 Ultimate Zone rating ranks them only behind the Red Sox in the A.L., and they’re DRS (defensive runs saved) rating of 61 ranks them number one.
The Tampa Bay Rays have defied expectations, shed payroll, and continued to compete in a division full of offensive juggernauts like the Red Sox, Yankees, and Blue Jays. They may not be able to get over the hump and take the Wild Card, but they’ve given themselves a decent shot. With the Red Sox struggles and the Rays surge, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this race come down to the final week.
For the entire second half of the season we’ve been looking for play-off races. Now we have two; the Rangers and Angels, and the Red Sox and Rays.