In the offseason, the Tamp Bay Rays signed Manny Ramirez, who got one hit, tested positive for a performance-enhancing substance and retired, all before the season was a week old.
The Red Sox, owners of a $161 million payroll, signed Carl Crawford, the top free agent on the market, to a $142 million contract to play left field.
The Rays, owners of a $41 million payroll, slotted left field to a 29-year-old native of New Hampshire named Sam Fuld who makes $418,300 and had hit .272 for the Cubs in 2010 -- the Iowa Cubs.
The Red Sox entrusted their DH role to a hero of the 2004 club, David Ortiz. He’s had a monster season, hitting .313 with 29 home runs and 92 RBIs.
The Rays entrusted their DH role to Johnny Damon, another hero of the 2004 Red Sox. He’s hit .260 with an OPS 240 points less than Ortiz.
Boston’s best player has perhaps been Jacoby Ellsbury, who has bounced back from his injury-marred 2010 in which he played just 18 games to hit .317 with 26 home runs and nearly 100 RBI from the leadoff spot.
Tampa’s best player is Evan Longoria, who strained an oblique in the second game of the season, didn’t return until May and struggled to get his bat going.
And yet, here we are, on Sept. 11, with just over two weeks left in the season, and the Rays -- remarkably, defiantly -- have clawed to 3 1/2 games behind the Red Sox for the AL wild card. Tampa swept Boston at home over the weekend, kicking the Red Sox around like an annoying little brother. The Red Sox, the team with the MVP candidates and megabucks superstars and fervent fan base, had a chance to put away the Rays but folded like a bunch of nervous eighth-graders being called to the principal’s office. The Rays, the team with second-lowest payroll in baseball and a stadium that is only rarely half-full, played like the team on a mission.
On Friday, Wade Davis unveiled a new pitch, throwing a cut fastball for the first time and ended up with a complete game, striking out eight. On Saturday, the Rays blew a two-run lead in the ninth but won in the 11th on Desmond Jennings' triple and Longoria's walk-off single. On Sunday, Tampa forced Jon Lester to throw 111 pitches in just four innings. B.J. Upton's grand slam off reliever Matt Albers -- he crushed a meaty 2-0 fastball to left-center -- was the capper on Tampa’s glorious weekend.
“Under the circumstances, you've got to do what we did or it's pretty much almost impossible to recover. Our guys believe we can do this. It's truly not impossible,” Tampa manager Joe Maddon said.
"We're kind of in a fight right now, we know that. It's not real pretty,” Red Sox manager Terry Francona said.
The Rays are 23-10 since Aug. 8. The Red Sox have lost five in a row and nine of their past 11. The teams have four games left against each other, starting Thursday at Fenway Park. The odds are still stacked against Tampa but I’m going to make the call: They’re going to win the wild card. Here’s why.
1. Starting pitching.
James Shields just missed his 12th complete game of the season on Sunday, pitching into the ninth inning. He has allowed three runs his past four starts. Rookie Jeremy Hellickson remains solid and has allowed more than runs in a game just once all year. David Price has a 2.44 ERA over his past eight starts. Davis is coming off his best start of 2011 and Jeff Niemann has been solid.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, are a mess. Josh Beckett will throw off a Monday to test his sprained ankle and could return for the series against Tampa. Lester’s outing Sunday was maybe an aberration, but he’s also had trouble pitching deep into games lately as he’s run into some high pitch counts. Besides Sunday’s 111-pitch disaster, he also threw 114 pitches in just five innings against the Yankees on Sept. 1. While Tampa’s aces are pitching complete games, Lester has gone into the eighth inning just once since June 18. John Lackey’s 12-12 record masks his terrible season. He leads the league in earned runs and hit batters and his 6.30 ranks last among major league pitchers with at least 100 innings. The only reason he’s still in the rotation is that three other spots are currently held down by Tim Wakefield, Andrew Miller and rookie Kyle Weiland. Obviously, $160 million doesn’t buy what it used to.
2. Evan Longoria.
Longoria is still hitting just .241, but he’s been driving in runs with a ferocious attitude. Since June 20, he has 64 RBIs in 72 games. The Rays are only a middle-of-the-pack offense, but Longoria is hitting .333 in September with an on-base percentage over .500. He’s put his disappointing season behind him and starting to carry the club when it most needs him.
3. Bullpen issues in Boston.
The Tampa Bay pen continues to trudge along -- it’s not dominating, but gets the job done -- while Boston’s lack of depth is finally showing up. Closer Jonathan Papelbon has been superb, but setup man Daniel Bard has seven losses despite holding hitters to a .174 batting average. He has two blown saves and a loss this month. Outside of long man Alfredo Aceves, the rest of the pen is a disaster, especially problematic since the starters aren’t going deep in the game, and Francona doesn’t have a reliable lefty out there. The combined struggles of the rotation and pen have produced a 5.92 ERA over the past two weeks -- the worst in baseball. Worried, Red Sox Nation?
It’s all on Boston. They have the superstars and the big payroll. They should have put Tampa away two weeks ago. And keep this in mind: Despite all the franchise’s success this decade, it’s a team that has won just one division title. The Red Sox still usually end up on the short end of things -- and not just to the Yankees. After all, the Rays finished seven games ahead of the Red Sox in 2010 in winning the division, and two games ahead of the Red Sox in 2008.
Looks, it’s still a tough road for Tampa. The Red Sox have seven games remaining against the lowly Orioles; the Rays one. The Rays have two series remaining against the Yankees; Boston just one.
But in a season of surprises, maybe we have one big one left. And if even if we don’t, at least September is suddenly full of a reason to keep checking the scoreboard.
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