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Champagne Super Novak

Can the Rays’ Surge Top the Red Sox Collapse?

With Tampa Bay streaking and Boston in a free fall, September just got a lot more interesting

It’s not going to happen.

For all the panic and finger-pointing, all the dreadful thoughts of ’78 and Bucky F’ing Dent, the Red Sox are still a loaded team with history on their side. They’re going to make the playoffs. They are not going to blow it.

No team has ever squandered a lead of 7.5 games or more in September. Yes, the Sox have seen their 9.5-game cushion on Tampa Bay shrink to three games in just 12 days. But this isn’t horseshoes or nuclear war. No points are awarded for coming close. If the Sox merely play .500 ball the rest of the way, the Rays need to go 11-5 (.688) just to set up a tiebreaker.

The schedule says that won’t happen. Seven of Boston’s final 16 games come against the Orioles; the Rays have just two games left against them (and seven against the loaded Yankees). Baltimore owns the worst record in the American League, second-worst in the majors. Last night’s O’s lineup included Matt Angle, Kyle Hudson, and Robert Andino. The Red Sox could send a 51-year-old Oil Can Boyd out against the Orioles and they’d still win. Steamroll the O’s as expected, then win a handful of other games, and you force the Rays to play ostensibly perfect baseball for the next 2½ weeks.

Regression is coming. Everything that could have gone wrong for Boston has gone wrong. Dustin Pedroia, one of the best all-around players in the league, has gone ice-cold. He’s 3-for-34 in his past eight games, with nine strikeouts and one extra-base hit. He’s hitless in his past 13 at-bats with runners in scoring position. The recent RISP woes run deeper than that: The Sox are hitting just .228 in that situation over their past eight games, including a 1-for-15 stretch against the Rays.

These things don’t last. Over the long haul, there’s no such thing as a team that’s clutch or unclutch. Balls will start dropping in for hits, and runs will start scoring. Even without the ailing Kevin Youkilis, the Red Sox feature a loaded lineup, second only to the Yankees in runs scored. MVP candidate Jacoby Ellsbury fronts one of the best foursomes in baseball alongside Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, and David Ortiz. Even the team’s role players, guys like Josh Reddick (.355 wOBA), Jarrod Saltalamacchia (.337), and Marco Scutaro (.331), have been positive contributors. Slumps happen, but so do bounce-backs. The smart money says this team will mash down the stretch.

Meanwhile, the Rays are giving playing time to green rookies Brandon Guyer and Jose Lobaton, sending Casey Kotchman out to reenact the Dead Ball Era against lefties and sending Sean Rodriguez out to hit like a pitcher against righties. B.J. Upton just had a stretch in which he reached base a team-record nine times in a row, despite using a plate approach that consists of swinging at the first pitch every time and trusting the pitcher to have no brains whatsoever. This is a team with half a lineup, playing over its head. Plus Kyle Farnsworth’s hurt, leaving behind a thin bullpen.

Things never look worse than when you’re slumping and never better than when you’re streaking. It won’t last. You’ve got this, Red Sox.

It’s almost certainly not going to happen.

Baseball Prospectus, which considers everything from injuries to promotions and other depth chart changes, gives the Red Sox a 96.3 percent chance of making the playoffs — with a 3.7 percent chance for the Rays. For all of Boston’s attrition and Tampa Bay’s reinforcements, BP pegs the Sox making the postseason as 26 times more likely than the Rays doing it.

Coolstandings.com factors in teams’ runs scored and runs allowed totals, as well as schedule strength and whether remaining games are at home or on the road, though the site ignores injuries, trades, and probable starters for upcoming games. It gives the Sox an 86.7 percent chance of playing into October, 13.2 percent for the Rays. Yes, Boston’s number is down from 98.3 percent just 10 days ago. But by any objective measure, the Red Sox are still the overwhelming favorites.

Consider:

• Only eight teams have come back from 10 games out on August 1 or later to make the postseason. Four teams have done it in the divisional era: the 1969 Mets, 1973 Mets, 1995 Mariners, and 2009 Twins.

• Only four teams have come back from a deficit of six-plus games with 20 games left to make the postseason: the 1951 Giants, 1964 Cardinals, 1995 Mariners, and 2007 Phillies.

As sports fans, we fixate on extraordinary events, and ignore far more common, mundane endings.

The ’64 Phillies and the ’07 Mets collapse at the very end? We take that to mean no lead is safe. The ’51 Giants storm back from 13 games out with seven weeks to play to win it? That means anything can happen. On August 24, 1995, the Angels sat at 67-44, 8.5 games ahead in the AL West. Win the division, or if necessary win the wild card — one of those outcomes seemed a lock. So much so that coolstandings.com set the Angels’ chances of making the playoffs at 99.9 percent. They went 11-23 the rest of the way and came up short.1

Those who bring up such outcomes are searching for a miracle. More than a century of baseball history tells us that miracles almost never come.

It probably won’t happen.

For a stretch of 121 games, the Red Sox played like world beaters. They went 80-41 from April 15 to August 27, featuring a stacked lineup, a rotation boosted by Josh Beckett’s huge rebound season, and an able bullpen led by a renewed Jonathan Papelbon and a cadre of effective setup men.

The other games? Not so good. Boston started the year 2-10, prompting predictable levels of anxiety in New England before catching fire and putting those fears to rest. Since the end of the 121-game beast mode, the Sox have gone 3-10, causing more hand-wringing.

Only this time, it might be a little justified. After Jon Lester, the current Sox rotation consists of John Lackey, Tim Wakefield, Andrew Miller, and Kyle Weiland, the Four Horsemen of the Playoffpocalypse. The starting rotation’s inability to go deep into games has taxed the bullpen while also exposing its weak underbelly. Alfredo Aceves has been a workhorse, but he’s at 106 innings pitched between the majors and minors after throwing just 23.2 last year, and might be on borrowed time. Matt Albers excelled for a good chunk of the season, before coming to a sudden, painful realization: “Oh shit, I’m Matt Albers!” Even the normally indomitable Daniel Bard has struggled lately, yielding runs in three of his past four outings including a one-inning, five-run orgy by the Jays last week.

This year’s Sox can’t help but remind you of those ’07 Mets. Like this year’s Sox, those Mets got hammered by injuries to the starting rotation late in the year. The Mets lost 12 of 17 games after leading by seven games on September 12. Brian Lawrence, he of the 6.83 ERA that year, started on September 17. Rookie Phil Humber made his one and only start of the season on September 26, and got rocked. This after Chan Ho Park (Chan Ho Park!!) made a start in late August and got bombed.

Plenty of teams have backed into the playoffs and gone on to big things. The 2000 Yankees and the unremarkable, 83-win Cardinals of 2006 both limped to the finish line, posting two of the ugliest endings to a season ever recorded by first-place clubs. Both went on to win the World Series.

This year’s Sox might get Josh Beckett back for this weekend’s huge four-game series against the Rays. Erik Bedard’s knee and lat injuries are considered relatively minor, offering hope that he might be back soon. There’s even talk of Clay Buchholz making it back by year’s end, if not in the rotation then at least to solidify the pen. Once Boston returns to full pitching strength, it’ll again field as strong a roster as any team in baseball, giving itself a chance to duplicate the championship runs of those Yankees and Cardinals teams. As long as that happens sooner rather than later, they’ll likely be fine.

You still shouldn’t bet on it.

Just as the Sox have slumped, the Rays have taken off. They’re 26-13 since August 1, with a +52 run differential.2 The starting rotation has been extraordinary, leading Peter Gammons to tweet an unbelievable factoid: Had James Shields gone the distance against Boston on Sunday instead of getting pulled in the ninth, the Rays would have had twice as many complete games in September … as the Red Sox have had all year. As is, Shields has 11 complete games for the year; the last time an AL starter topped that number was Chuck Finley’s 13 CGs in ’93. Even Wade Davis, the team’s de facto fifth starter, went the distance Friday against the Sox, mixing a cutter into his repertoire that made him look like he could be Boston’s no. 2 starter with ease right now. In an even deeper testament to the team’s excellent run prevention, the Rays have won 22 straight games when scoring five runs or more.

What the lineup lacks in raw power it makes up with the best defense in baseball, speed, and just enough hitting to support baseball’s deepest rotation outside of Philly. Ben Zobrist is having another season that’s far more valuable than Triple Crown stats could detect, leading the majors in doubles, leading the Rays in walks, running the bases well, and playing premium defense at two different positions. Evan Longoria has turned on the power after shaking off a nagging ankle injury. Upton has improbably gone from deadline trade bait flirting with the Mendoza Line to shades of his late-’08 surge. Matt Joyce smokes righties and plays good defense. You might not be scared by many of the Rays hitters, but they’ve done enough to keep the team competitive.

We don’t put much stock in body language, but Joe Maddon’s holding press conferences with the Blue Man Group and the team’s rookies are dressing as French maids, sexy cops, and video-game plumbers, and enjoying it a little too much. The team with the $42 million payroll is once again putting the fear of Flying Spaghetti Monster into their much richer rivals.

But still … they’re three games behind with 16 to play. And some of that is their own doing.

Two weeks ago, Bill Simmons and I debated the Rays’ handling of Desmond Jennings, their top hitting prospect coming into the season. The debate stemmed as much from our shared wish to see the best players take the field as from any pennant-race implications.3

The Rays were eight games back in the loss column at the time. There was no reason to believe they could possibly make up all that ground in a month. More broadly, I felt they were an overmatched team, doomed to play third fiddle to the Yanks and Sox in a transition year, and hopefully make another even-year playoff in 2012. I also noted Jennings’ less-than-stellar minor league track record, which included three homers all of last year and a spate of injuries. No one could have expected Jennings to go Willie Mays on the American League from day one.

Jennings has cooled off substantially since then and his current line of .293/.381/.521 could see more regression by year’s end. But Bill argued that even with a more realistic projection, Jennings could have delivered at least a couple more wins than the likes of Sam Fuld and Justin Ruggiano. I didn’t think a couple of wins would matter for an 88-win-caliber team that likely needs 95 to have a shot. The Rays apparently didn’t either. Or at least they didn’t think promoting Jennings earlier was worth restarting his service-time clock and pushing him closer to free agency and arbitration. Give Andrew Friedman a dose of truth serum, and he’d argue that the Rays’ woeful revenue streams necessitate manipulating certain players’ service time to keep premium prospects from leaving too early. He’d also say that when Rays prospects do finally get the call, they usually play very well right away, having acquired the skills and seasoning needed to succeed at the highest level.

But the bottom line is that even a not-quite-100-percent-ready Jennings would have helped the Rays in a year when they needed the help. I was wrong, and they were wrong. I recently had an unrelated conversation with Atlanta GM Frank Wren about the idea of teams saving service time, since the Braves do as good a job of integrating top prospects onto winning teams as anyone in the game. Wren didn’t hesitate in his reply.

“Service time only comes into play if you’re a bad team,” he said. “If you’re a good team, your responsibility is to put your best 25 on the field.”

The Rays didn’t do that. They gave four starts to human piñata Andy Sonnanstine rather than make an earlier call on Alex Cobb, Alex Torres, or someone else from the Rays’ deep stable of promising pitching prospects. The Rays went 0-4 in those starts. And a couple of minor midseason nicks aside, they left Jennings in Triple-A a little longer than they should. These little moves could prove to be the difference between playing baseball in October and playing golf. For a team that prides itself on finding every little edge it can, being overly cautious with prospects’ service time remains an ongoing weakness.

Except …

It might happen.

Joining Jennings and the rest of the upstart Rays on Monday in Baltimore was Matt Moore. Never heard of him? ESPN’s Keith Law ranked Moore as the best pitching prospect on the planet earlier this year. An eighth-round pick who walked the park early in his career, Moore has followed in the footsteps of high-strikeout/high-walk stars like Nolan Ryan and Randy Johnson, refining his repertoire and rising to elite status. In 155 innings between Double-A and Triple-A this year, Moore struck out 210 batters and walked just 46, posting a 1.82 ERA and a FIP under 2.50. You never know with prospects, especially pitching prospects. But Moore pitched even better than future aces Tim Lincecum and Jered Weaver as a minor leaguer.

Comparisons have already been made to David Price, a minor league starter who came up late in the ’08 season and dominated in relief in September and in the playoffs, replacing an injured closer and propelling the Rays to the World Series. Moore also figures to pitch in relief and could see high-leverage innings with Farnsworth questionable. We got a glimpse of Moore in a small dose during this year’s Futures Game, with the lefty needing 11 pitches to retire the side, hitting 100 mph on one of his fastballs. Nats fans celebrate Strasmas when Stephen Strasburg takes the mound, and the Mariners mark Felix Hernandez starts by wishing everyone a Happy Felix Day. With the Rays needing one last big push to complete their comeback, they’re about to unleash MattMoorial Day on the AL wild-card race.

A surging Rays club now fully stocked with their best prospects. A reeling Sox team with a Swiss cheese rotation. A three-game lead, a four-game head-to-head series this weekend at Fenway. A potentially rousing comeback. A potentially devastating collapse.

Asked after last weekend’s sweep in Tampa Bay how he felt about his team’s chances, David Ortiz didn’t mince words. “You’ve got to panic at this point.”

Or at least pay damn close attention.

Jonah Keri’s new book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, is a national best-seller. Check out the Jonah Keri Podcast at JonahKeri.com and on iTunes, and follow him on Twitter @JonahKeri.


Previously from Jonah Keri:
How Do the Angels Keep Winning?
The Road Map for a Cubs Resurgence
Six Teams You Don’t Want to Face in the Playoffs
Trade Deadline Losers
Trade Deadline Winners

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Filed Under: Jonah Keri, MLB, People, Sports

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First, is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri