Rays' reversal improbable but not impossible
Young pitching behind stunning one-month run on Red Sox
It was one of those three-games-in-two-days stops along the road in August. The Red Sox beat the Rays, 3-1, in the first game of the day portion of the day-nighter on Tuesday, then, in a 21-hour period, were blown away by Jeff Niemann and David Price three-hitters.
No big deal, except they left the Red Sox a half-game behind the Yankees. The Rays, 8 1/2 games back of Boston, were an afterthought.
Well, since then, Tampa Bay has gone 19-11, Boston 13-17. Beginning with those two games, the Rays have made the Red Sox look like Robert De Niro in the fading of "Raging Bull." Tampa Bay won three straight against Boston in St. Petersburg two weekends ago. The Rays won three out of four this weekend, which, going back to those seemingly meaningless games in August, means they have won eight out of nine against the Red Sox, outscoring them 56-24.
Mystics and statistics say California will slide into the ocean, just as mystics and statistics say the Red Sox cannot lose a two-game lead with 10 games to play -- not when they play seven with the Orioles while the Rays play seven with the Yankees.
"We're used to improbable," says Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon. "We understand that, and we understand how good the Red Sox are. But the air has a chill, it feels like October, and when you play in Fenway Park in an atmosphere like this, you feel like it's October baseball. It doesn't get any better than that."
This is no consolation to New Englanders panicking in Chelsea, Fryeberg and Winooski, but in a season when we supposedly were void of pennant races, the Rays have not only brought back the thrill of the chase, they have again proven the integrity of the well-run business.
This is mostly about pitching. Tampa Bay's astounding ability to scout, develop and trust young pitching has been one of the great stories of this season. After Price survived a line drive off his chest Sunday, and the Rays won the finale of the series, 8-5, Tampa Bay has gone 753 games starting a pitcher under the age of 30. In case you're wondering, the last time that happened, Walter Johnson was a 20-something-year-old kid with the Washington Senators, two Washington franchises before Stephen Strasburg.
Every one of the Rays' 152 games this season has been started by someone out of their own organization. Boston batted .189 against Tampa Bay pitching this season. The Red Sox have finished ahead of the Rays once in the past three seasons.
"Hitting is a big problem for us; we're realistic," says Maddon.
So one night, they hit three homers. The next night, they steal seven bases. Sunday, they stole four more, then played rush-hour baseball as Tim Wakefield and successors struggled to keep pitches off the ground.
Saturday, Matt Moore came in for three innings, the kid who throws the easy 96-98 mph and may be the best pitching prospect in the game. Maddon and Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman were hesitant to bring Moore up and throw him into the 2008 Price role.
"We have to be as certain as we can be that our young players are ready," says Maddon. "We can't afford too wide a learning curve."
They held Jeremy Hellickson at Triple-A Durham for most of two seasons, as he racked up Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors. So he was still a rookie who, Thursday, on a night when he didn't have his best command (10 of 24 first-pitch strikes), still had the poise to be able to walk David Ortiz intentionally to load the bases in a tight spot, then get Kevin Youkilis on a 3-2 changeup.
"How about that pitch?" marveled Evan Longoria.
Tampa Bay doesn't have to rush up its young players to sell to its market, one of the few advantages of being out on an island market that doesn't draw.
The Rays may have the smallest payroll in the American League, but they are proof of the integrity of pure scouting and development. Sunday, they saw Conor Jackson start in left field for the Red Sox, instead of Carl Crawford, who for years was the face of the Tampa Bay franchise before moving to Boston as a free agent. With the Red Sox's lead on the Rays down to three games and Youkilis and J.D. Drew out of the lineup, Crawford was rested because he was hitting .158 against his former teammates.
It has been a hard year for Crawford in the glare of expectations. So hard a year that Sunday he offered an apology to the Red Sox fans for his .255 average and the fact that he had stolen one base in nearly two months. His problems certainly haven't been from a lack of work. From the day he reported to Fort Myers for Spring Training, Crawford has been the BP warrior, in the cage for what seems like hours a day.
"He probably cares and works too hard," says one teammate.
And the more he struggles, the harder he works. And when the games begin, that short, sharp left-center-field stroke turns into pull mode, and his right shoulder flies open.
In 2008-10, Crawford averaged .297 with 14 homers, 47 steals and an .803 OPS. This season, he's hitting .255 with 11 homers, 18 steals and a .694 OPS. Desmond Jennings is now tied with Crawford in steals, and Tampa Bay's left fielders have scored 22 more runs, hit eight more homers and stolen twice as many bases as their departed star. What the Rays did not have in payroll, they made up in judging Sam Fuld and Jennings.
And the Red Sox are staggering. Every member of their original starting rotation -- Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, John Lackey, Daisuke Matsuzaka -- has spent time on the disabled list. In the 29 games since Price shut them out in August, their starters have thrown three quality starts and gone seven innings three times, which has led to a bullpen blowout. In September, they have three wins from their starters -- one each by Beckett, Lester and Erik Bedard -- and have a starters' ERA of 5.98.
In what was a lineup built on thunder as well as depth, Josh Reddick has shown up in the five-hole, Crawford seventh. Youkilis' hip is so bad they don't know if he can get back into the lineup. Adrian Gonzalez's repaired right shoulder is weak and limiting his ability to drive the ball to the opposite field. Ortiz's back is bothering him. Drew worked hard on rehab for a final month's push and broke a bone in his finger in his Minor League rehab finale.
There is no question that this offseason Boston will examine its physical issues, even before it begins to deal with the contracts of Ortiz and Jonathan Papelbon. Because the Red Sox in many ways have become the Yankees in that expectations have made anything but a World Series championship failure. Even if they make the playoffs, it will be difficult against either Detroit or Texas, given their pitching, and in the case of the Rangers, the ability to outslug Boston when the rotation will be Beckett, Lester, Lackey and TBA.
And while the mystics and statistics say a two-game lead with 10 games to play gives the Red Sox about an 85-percent chance of finishing with the Wild Card, there are no givens. Buck Showalter strongly believes in the integrity of September, that no matter if his Orioles are in last place, they have to play hard and make contenders beat them. They won two out of three against the Yankees, then two out of three against the Rays, then two out of three against the Angels this weekend.
Baltimore has had to listen to Boston and New York fans in Camden Yards these past few years, and they do not care that what the Red Sox need most is to be able to clinch the Wild Card with enough time to get Gonzalez, Youkilis, Ortiz and Beckett rested for the playoffs.
The Rays denied what the Red Sox needed, because in a stunning one-month reversal, their $8 million rotation completely outpitched what is left of Boston's original $47 million rotation. And now they have the opportunity to defy all odds and become the first team to overcome a nine-game deficit in September to make the postseason.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.