It may not seem like it, but the Rays had to win. Heading into Friday, Baseball Prospectus' postseason odds had the Rays' chances of reaching the postseason at 3.9 percent. CoolStandings.com was a bit more optimistic, pegging their chances at 8.1 percent, still not very good odds. Unfortunately for the Rays, the amazing story of James Shields' 2011 season took on a darker narrative after Friday’s outcome. Shields struggled with his location all night, battled valiantly without his best stuff, but in the end could not stave off the Red Sox’s persistent offense. The second the game was over, the Rays’ postseason odds dropped from 8.1 percent to 3.1 percent according to CoolStandings.
The game in and of itself was amazing. Not that both teams played a crisp, clean game, or that there weren't some questionable calls by the umpiring crew, or that either starter had his best stuff. However, there was an electric playoff feel to every pitch, every swing and every play.
Shields allowed seven hits in seven innings of work while surrendering four runs, one of which was a blast over the Green Monster off the bat of Mike Aviles. As noted, Shields just couldn't find his command: He started up in the zone to the first two Red Sox batters, Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia, and his poor location led to an Ellsbury leadoff double followed by a Pedroia RBI single. Shields adjusted down against Adrian Gonzalez, coaxing him to strike out swinging on a pitch outside the strike zone.
However, this extra-low location wouldn't play as well against the next batter, David Ortiz. A pitch in the dirt that got by catcher John Jaso allowed Pedroia to advance to second. Unlike Gonzalez, Ortiz laid off Shields’ low, out-of-zone offerings, forcing the count to 3-0 and forcing Shields to come down the middle with a fastball. Papi didn't miss it, lining an RBI single and pulling the Red Sox even with the Rays at 2-2 in the bottom of the first.
The lack of command would haunt Shields most of the night, though he pitched like a bulldog for as long as he could. Unfortunately for the Rays, "Big Game James" just couldn't come up big enough this time.
It's not as if the Rays didn't try everything they could to win the game. Leadoff hitter Desmond Jennings was on base four of his five plate appearances, stole two bases and scored two of the Rays’ three runs. Johnny Damon had three stolen bases and even Casey Kotchman got in on that action, swiping his second base of the season. Needless to say, the Rays knew that they could run on the combination of Josh Beckett and Jason Varitek. Jason Collette, BaseballProspectus.com writer and manager of DRaysBay.com, pointed out on Twitter that the Rays became only the 29th team in baseball history to steal seven bases and still lose the game. They had the seven steals, the big two-run home run by Evan Longoria in the first, and a starting pitcher who kept them in the game through seven innings, and yet they still could not find a way to plate that game-tying fourth run.
With the win, the Red Sox move their AL wild-card lead back to four games and chop their magic number down to nine with 12 games to play for both teams. At this point, if the Red Sox win just half of their remaining games, the Rays would have to win 10 of their final 12 in order to simply force a tie in the standings. Let's just say the Sox win only a quarter of their remaining 12 games; that would put them at 90 wins. The Rays would still have to win over half of their remaining games (seven of 12) to force a tie.
That may not seem like too much to overcome, as they've been playing well this month, but the schedule presents some big obstacles, mostly in the form of eight games against the first-place New York Yankees. Eight of the Rays’ final 12 games are against the team with the best record in the American League and the best run differential in all of baseball. Even before they get to the Yankees, they must defeat Red Sox co-ace Jon Lester on Saturday, though they have found success against Lester this season, pounding out eight earned runs and 18 hits in 18 innings, while winning two of the three games against him. I'm not saying that the Rays can't pull this off, but without a now-impossible sweep in Boston the odds are extremely stacked against them.
Even if the Rays fall short of their postseason goal, their season has to be viewed as a success. They are 16 games over .500 in baseball's toughest division and are 34-25 against AL East opponents. Plus, they've accomplished all that with what is by far the lowest payroll in the division. If nothing else, the Rays’ late charge against the Red Sox has made for some great September baseball, something we weren't sure was going to happen at the beginning of the month. I guess it’s another case of "It ain't over 'til it's over," but after Friday’s Red Sox win, the Rays’ glimmer of hope is fading by the day.
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