Here’s a pessimistic tidbit, at least for Rays fans: Tampa Bay could set a franchise record for wins and yet still miss the playoffs. After beating the Red Sox 7-4 on Monday to improve to 93-64, the Rays climbed a half-game ahead of the Indians for the second wild card. (They’re 1½ games behind the A’s.)
It was a nice comeback as the Rays were trailing 4-0 in the bottom of the fourth when they slammed three home runs and scored six runs: Ji-Man Choi hit a three-run homer off Jhoulys Chacin, Brandon Lowe tied it with a long 441-foot blast to right-center and then Willy Adames hit a two-run shot off Bobby Poyner.
The Rays won 97 games during their World Series season in 2008, so they would have to win all five of their remaining games to get to 98 — they host the Yankees on Tuesday and Wednesday and finish up with three in Toronto. But if the Indians win their six remaining games — on the road against the White Sox and Nationals — they also finish with 98 wins, which would force a play-in game assuming the A’s finish better than that. If the Indians win that game, the Rays go home empty-handed.
That the Rays are in this position isn’t a complete surprise. They won 90 games last year, including a 41-25 record in the second half. Given the paucity of go-for-it teams in a weak American League, the Rays were likely playoff contenders. Their biggest obstacle appeared to be the Yankees and Red Sox looking like potential 100-win teams. The Yankees were; the Red Sox were not.
But when you dig deeper, maybe it is a surprise the Rays are still hanging with Oakland and Cleveland. For all the attention awarded the Yankees for their string of injuries, the Rays have also played through a long list of setbacks. Consider:
— They’ve had one healthy member of the rotation all season in Charlie Morton. Not including the starts made by opener Ryne Stanek, Blake Snell is second on the team with 22 starts. The Yankees have five pitchers with at least 22 starts, including three with at least 28.
— Jose Alvarado started the season lights out as the team’s primary closer with a 1.38 ERA in April, but he threw just 17 innings since then and is out for the season with elbow inflammation.
— Joey Wendle, who produced a 4.3-WAR season in 2018, hurt his hamstring four games into the season, returned on April 21 and four days later suffered a fractured wrist when hit by a pitch. He’s back now, but has never gotten on track at the plate, perhaps hampered by the wrist.
— Rookie Brandon Lowe saw his playing time increase after the Wendle injuries and made the All-Star team, but he just returned after missing the entire second half with leg issues.
— Yandy Diaz had performed very well with a .270/.343/.480 line and 118 OPS+, but has been out since July 22 with a fracture in his foot.
The good news is Snell and Tyler Glasnow — who was 6-1 with a 1.86 ERA when he down on May 10 — are back on the mound, although still on limited pitch counts. Snell started Monday, his second game back since July, but lasted just 1⅔ innings and 52 pitches before Kevin Cash hooked him. Part of that was the pitch count, but Snell was struggling big time with his location and walked three batters. Still, with Yonny Chirinos also back, the Tampa staff is in it its best shape since that dominant run early in the season.
Cash and pitching coach Kyle Snyder deserve a lot of credit for massaging the staff through the summer. The Rays are second in the majors in relief appearances (only the Red Sox have more). Some of that is a result of deploying the opener, but also the ripple effect of juggling the rotation without Snell, Glasnow and Chirinos.
Emilio Pagan, acquired from Oakland in the offseason as a bullpen depth piece, has been the big surprise in the pen, taking over as closer from Alvarado and Diego Castillo, and posting a 2.38 ERA with 20 saves. But when he allowed two hits with one out in the ninth Monday, Cash turned to rookie lefty Colin Poche to face Mitch Moreland. Alex Cora countered with pinch hitters Christian Vazquez and Xander Bogaerts, getting the platoon advantage, but Poche struck out both to get his second save. He was the eighth Tampa reliever of the game.
So how does the wild-card race shake down the rest of the week? FanGraphs pegs the A’s with a 95.8% chance of making the playoffs, the Rays at 66% and the Indians at 38.3% (plus Cleveland still has a non-zero chance of beating the Twins in the AL Central). I’m not sure I’d peg the Rays as 2-to-1 favorites over the Indians, even if Cleveland does have that six-game road trip. Led by Shane Bieber and Mike Clevinger and an underrated bullpen, the Indians have a 3.20 ERA since the beginning of July, best in the majors.
Here’s how the pitching matchups line up for each team:
Tampa Bay: Brendan McKay vs. Yankees (undecided)
Cleveland: Mike Clevinger at White Sox (Hector Santiago)
Tampa Bay: Charlie Morton vs. Yankees (undecided)
Cleveland: Shane Bieber at White Sox (Ross Detwiler)
Tampa Bay: Tyler Glasnow at Blue Jays (T.J. Zeuch)
Oakland: Homer Bailey at Mariners (Justin Dunn)
Tampa Bay: Blake Snell at Blue Jays (Clay Buchholz)
Cleveland: Mike Clevinger at Nationals (Max Scherzer)
Of course, Scherzer may not pitch that final Sunday if the Nationals have a playoff spot clinched (almost certainly will happen). That will help the Indians. If we end up tied after Sunday’s action, the Rays would have Morton ready to go on Monday or for the wild-card game while the Indians would have Bieber lined up for the same scenario. Of course, if a play-in game is required — let alone with if we end up in a three-way tie — than that creates all kinds of potential chaos for the wild-card game on Oct. 2.
Then again, if the Rays are forced into a bullpen game, perhaps no team is better equipped. They’ve been playing those types of games all season long.
Avisail Garcia drives in a run, but he’s thrown out at third base when Mookie Betts lasers a throw from right field to get him.
— Philadelphia Phillies (@Phillies) September 23, 2019
Alas, the Nationals beat the Phillies 7-2 and the Phillies’ tragic number is down to one. Next year, Bryce.