The Tampa Bay Rays are the hottest team in Major League Baseball. They have won 20 of their past 24 games and are 15-2 in the month of July, culminating in their three-game sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays this weekend. After an uncharacteristic and erratic start to the season, the Rays' pitching staff is leading the current charge. During the 24-game hot streak, the staff has allowed 54 earned runs in 222 innings (2.18 ERA).
Multiple injuries in the rotation have forced the club to test the limits of their pitching depth. This would be a problem for most teams, but not the pitching-rich Rays organization. With David Price and Alex Cobb on the shelf, Tampa Bay turned to a trio of rookies: Alex Colome and Jake Odorizzi were called up first, but it has been Chris Archer -- ranked as the team's top pitching prospect coming into the season -- who has helped the club surge to the top of the American League wild-card race and within reach of first place in the East.
Archer initially struggled after being called up (4.40 ERA, 5.3 BB/9 in his first six starts) but took advantage of a soft spot in the schedule heading to the break. He closed out the first half with three victories, allowing two earned runs with 15 strikeouts and three walks in 21 innings. He tossed his first shutout as a professional against the Houston Astros a week ago today.
The Toronto Blue Jays have been a disappointment this season, but their offense is potent. After feasting on the weaker lineups in the league, Archer would be tested on Sunday. On results alone, he passed. He allowed just one run on five hits in seven innings of work. Following back-to-back starts without allowing a walk, he issued four free passes and struck out just one.
Despite the lackluster peripherals, Archer was at his best when he needed to be against the Blue Jays. Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion have combined to hit 86 extra-base hits this season, including 48 home runs. The duo went 0-8 against Archer and left seven men on base against the Rays’ powerful righty; Archer used upper-90s fastballs to retire the powerful combo in seven of the eight appearances.
With Alex Cobb set to return to the Rays' rotation in August, Archer's immediate future is uncertain. But even if he is temporarily bounced from the rotation, his high-octane arsenal may make him a weapon out of the bullpen down the stretch.
Archer was not the only young pitcher making a big start for a contender on Sunday. Aside from accomplished, young veterans such as Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner, the day’s slate included some lesser known names that -- despite their lack of star power -- are equally important to their teams’ playoff chances.
Coming into the season, the Pittsburgh Pirates' Jeff Locke was a somewhat soft-tossing left-hander with a 5.82 ERA in 12 career appearances. Eighteen starts later, he is a National League All-Star. The All-Star nod notwithstanding, Locke's performance has flown largely under the radar, although the 25-year-old went 8-2 with a 2.15 ERA in the first half. A sore back kept him from pitching in the Midsummer Classic, but he was back on the mound Sunday looking to help the Buccos avoid a sweep at the hands of the Cincinnati Reds.
Shin-Soo Choo led off the bottom of the first inning with an infield single for the Reds. It would be the only hit allowed by Locke in six innings of work. Despite that one hit, the southpaw was not exactly dominant: He walked four batters -- including Zack Cozart and Corky Miller in back-to-back plate appearances -- and allowed his only run to score on a wild pitch.
Although Locke's average fastball registers at less than 91 mph, his "heater" has been a huge problem for opposing hitters. In fact, the .176 opponents’ average against his fastball is the lowest among qualified MLB starters. Locke is not a control artist (not with his 11.1 percent walk rate), but he does a good job of locating the fastball arm-side: He keeps the pitch away from righties and in on lefties, but most importantly he keeps it in the lower half of the zone. Against the Reds, he used the fastball to record 14 with five of those strikeouts.
Behind Locke's effort, the Pirates avoided a sweep and extended their NL wild-card lead to three games. Along with A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano, the New Hampshire native gives Pittsburgh an unexpected and formidable top of the rotation. This trio, backed by a solid bullpen, may land the Pirates in the playoffs for the first time in 20 years.
Like Archer, Tyler Chatwood began the season in the minor leagues for the Rockies. Acquired from the Los Angeles Angels in winter of 2011, he was promoted in late April before briefly returning to Triple-A. He was recalled again in mid-May and has been a surprise performer in Colorado’s rotation ever since.
Chatwood relies on a heavy, low-90s fastball. Relying heavily on the heater, he has a ground-ball rate near 60 percent. The pitch has helped him keep the ball in the yard in spite of the fact that he pitches half of his games in Coors Field.
Although the Rockies entered play on Sunday with a record of 47-51, they were just three-and-a-half games out of first place in the NL West. Similar to the pitchers mentioned above, Chatwood was not particularly sharp, but he was good enough to help his team win, allowing two runs (one earned) on seven hits in six innings. He walked more batters (four) than he struck out (two), but held true to form, generating 12 outs on the ground. The sixth inning home run he allowed to Anthony Rizzo was only the third homer he has surrendered in just over 76 innings of work.
If Colorado hopes to complete another second-half comeback, Chatwood is key to stabilizing a rotation that has been in flux at times. That's quite the leap for a 23-year-old that started the season behind Jeff Francis and Jon Garland on the depth chart.
Locke, Archer and Chatwood: None of them household names yet, but all three stand a chance to make themselves known as they help their teams push toward the postseason.
Tommy Rancel is a writer for The Process Report, the SweetSpot network blog covering the Tampa Bay Rays. You can follow him on Twitter @TRancel.