The Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays entered the opener of their three-game series Friday night at Tropicana Field with similar stories: season-long struggles along with questions about how to handle the contracts of their ace starting pitchers.
Boston's honeymoon with its third World Series triumph in 10 seasons quickly waned as they coped with replacing Jacoby Ellsbury and Stephen Drew (he re-signed with the Red Sox in late May), as well as dealing with the oft-injured Shane Victorino. Xander Bogaerts (.665 OPS) and Jackie Bradley Jr. (.622) have each experienced growing pains in their first full seasons. The offense, as a whole, has been wretched for most of the year, batting a collective .248 with only 79 homers before Friday (both figures 12th best in the American League).
On the mound, the Red Sox's rotation has been wildly uneven as Jake Peavy has seen a return of his gopheritis (AL-worst 20 homers allowed) and Clay Buchholz has yielded nearly 11 hits per nine innings. However, John Lackey has continued his career revival with a 3.47 FIP (his lowest since 2005) and Rubby De La Rosa has shown flashes of promise. Staff ace Jon Lester entered Friday's game with a career-high 4.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio, a .238 opponents' batting average and a .638 opponents' OPS.
But Lester is also in the final season of a six-year, $43 million deal, and talks regarding a new contract have now been set aside until the end of the season, at Lester’s request. While he appears willing (and wanting) to remain with the Red Sox, even with a small "hometown discount," the Red Sox's reported four-year, $70 million offer in spring training was likely far lower than what Lester had in mind. So now, with Boston having lost three of four to the Toronto Blue Jays, the Sox sat at 47-55, 6½ games out of the second wild card and 9½ games behind the division-leading Baltimore Orioles. Their playoff odds were at 2.4 percent as of Friday. As such, Lester could be entering the final two months of his Red Sox career, or he might even be traded by the July 31 trade deadline.
On the other side of the field, the Rays came off their fourth consecutive 90-win season with reason for optimism. They'd have a full season of Wil Myers to build on his .831 OPS. Matt Moore, off a 150-inning campaign, would have his innings cap loosened. They would count on growth from Chris Archer, who acquitted himself well over 23 starts, finishing third in the AL rookie of the year vote. Evan Longoria would be his usual self. The division certainly appeared winnable.
However, Longoria has posted a career-low .396 slugging percentage and .728 OPS to this point in 2014. Myers was hitting only .227 when he landed on the disabled list in early June with a wrist fracture. Moore succumbed to Tommy John surgery in April, and Alex Cobb spent the first six weeks of the season out with a side injury. Jeremy Hellickson had elbow surgery in January and just made it back to Tampa three weeks ago. The catchers were hitting a combined .200 (68-for-340) with only 13 extra-base hits for the season. The team hit its nadir June 10 at 24-42 and 15 games out of first place.
It was looking more and more likely that David Price, due for perhaps a $20 million arbitration salary in 2015 before hitting free agency that November, would be dealt sooner rather than later. If so, it would be a bitter pill for Rays fans, as Price is having perhaps his best season ever (career bests of 1.04 WHIP, 8.2 strikeout-to-walk rate, 10 K's and 1.2 walks per nine innings, 3.01 FIP).
Then, the Rays righted themselves and won 25 of their next 36, leaving them at 49-53 and only 4½ games out of the second wild card. Their playoff odds were still only 10.2 percent, but given their track record -- and the mediocrity of the division -- who would count them out? As a result, seemingly the most tradable front-line starter on the market might be staying put a while longer or Friday night might still possibly be his last start in a Rays uniform.
If it was to be each ace's last start for his respective club, each left a terrific impression on the 23,136 fans in attendance, as well as scouts from no less than 17 teams (as reported by Gordon Edes early in the evening). The Rays went on to beat the Red Sox 6-4 as Price was the crisper and more efficient of the two, mixing fastballs from 92 to 95 miles per hour with changeups and curves that nipped the corners all night long. He did make a mistake in the second inning, leaving a pitch over the plate for Victorino to knock into the left-field stands for only his second homer of the season. Aside from that, he breezed through the first five innings in 60 pitches, yielding only three hits while striking out six without a walk.
Lester nursed that slim lead through four innings before getting touched for a two-run homer by Desmond Jennings with two outs in the fifth. He yielded a single and a walk after that but got Longoria to fly out to left field to escape further damage. He needed 35 pitches to get through the inning, bringing him to 98 on the night.
The Sox got to Price for two runs in the sixth on a double and three singles, but he managed to retire Bogaerts on a fly ball to center with runners on the corners to keep the deficit at one. After Lester finished the sixth at 110 pitches and with a 3-2 lead, Red Sox manager John Farrell turned to the pen. Andrew Miller hit Jose Molina with a pitch to start the seventh, then struck out Logan Forsythe. Miller was relieved by Junichi Tazawa, who hadn't pitched since Sunday. Tazawa faced six batters. The first four of those went walk, run-scoring single, walk, bases-clearing double by Longoria. So much for the pitchers' duel.
Price thus took the mound in the eighth with a 6-3 lead and capped off his final inning of work with the last two of his 10 strikeouts on the night. In all, he threw 114 pitches, 80 of which were strikes. This was his 12th straight outing of seven or more innings, and he's pitched to a 1.07 ERA in his past eight games.
It now seems rather unlikely the Rays will part with Price before next Thursday's deadline. While their offense isn't a juggernaut, the pitching has been good enough, and they're starting to get some of their walking wounded back. The Orioles might still lead the division, but their remaining schedule is tough (only 13 games against sub-.500 teams). Hence, the AL East is still within reach for the Rays, and if they don't win the division, they'd be a tough out in the wild-card play-in game.
As for the Red Sox, their climb back to relevancy in the playoff race seems to have petered out. The bullpen has been shaky (their collective .700 OPS is eighth worst in the majors) and the offense just isn't steady enough, even with the return of Victorino. If a playoff contender asks about Lester, and the Sox feel unwilling to commit to "near-market value" on him long term, the Sox might just listen, and retool for 2015.
Diane Firstman writes the Value Over Replacement Grit blog and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.