Tides of playoff races change by the week
There's a game we play from the Trade Deadline on, every Sunday feeling the turning of the pennant race tides and picking who will be the matchup for the seventh game of the World Series.
It is an exercise that reminds us how the tides vary, sometimes according to baseball's full moons, often because of the emotion of a string of four or five days that are but small samples of the seven-month season. It is unusual to end up with the same matchup in successive weeks, although it's happened the past two Sundays, looking ahead to a David Price-Johnny Cueto final day to 2012 baseball.
Cueto, by virtually all statistical measures (remarkable in a launching pad of a ballpark), as well as the style points of emulating Luis Tiant and being the protégé of Pedro Martinez, should be no great surprise. The Reds went into Sunday with a better record than any National League team other than Washington, and will likely have Joey Votto in October, while the Nationals will not have Stephen Strasburg.
The Rays, on the other hand, went into their Sunday game in Anaheim with five fewer wins than the Yankees and three fewer than the Rangers. Granted, scouts remind us that even with the return of Evan Longoria, the Rays' offense can be locked down, but Tampa Bay has pitching. Really good pitching. Their starters lead the league in ERA by 0.29, they are tied for third in quality starts for the season behind the not-to-be-ignored White Sox and Angels, and beginning with July 17, those starters are 17-6 with a 2.54 ERA and an 8.2-2.1 ratio of strikeouts to walks per nine innings.
That they had come back from an 8-0 deficit in Anaheim on Saturday added to the tides. Oh yes. Their closer, Fernando Rodney, has blown two of 40 save opportunities all season -- straight from the heart of the archer.
This is a remarkable five-year run for the Rays, starting with 2008, when, against the defending-World Series-champion Red Sox, they won two out of three in Fenway Park, two out of three at The Trop, then won the ALCS in seven before losing the World Series to the Phillies.
Tampa Bay's pitching is always there at the end, which executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman believes is both the conditioning program of head athletic trainer Ron Porterfield as well as the leadership of veterans like James Shields and Price, whose year-round devotion to the program reminds young pitchers that consistency and longevity are not accidents.
What makes these Rays so intriguing for the long run is the potential of going 11 or 12 deep on their pitching staff. Rodney, with his 0.79 ERA and nine walks in 56 2/3 innings, has been ridiculously good. Then look at the rest of the 'pen, beyond Kyle Farnsworth:
Wade Davis out of the 'pen kicks at 96 mph with 58 strikeouts in 51 2/3 innings. Jake McGee sits in the high-90s and has 45 strikeouts in 37 innings. J.P. Howell last allowed a run on June 13. Oh yes, and Chris Archer may be back from the Minors and can get it up in the high-90s out of the 'pen.
The Rays fly home from Anaheim on Sunday night awaiting a week's homestand with the Royals and Athletics -- a week that may be critical to the Red Sox and Angels and those teams' hopes of getting to October. Many thought the Angels were the preseason favorites to win the World Series, an emotion seconded by the acquisition of Zack Grienke. But the reality is that they go into Fenway on Tuesday night needing to find their form on a six-game road trip that will start in Boston and end in Detroit. At least it is a week in which they will probably miss Justin Verlander and Jon Lester.
There is no truth to the reports that Jackson Browne will fly to Fenway to perform Warren Zevon's "Mutineer" before Tuesday's game. Boston's storyline has been a soap opera of white noise, the season resembling a pitcher giving up a ground-ball base hit, then standing on the mound, hands on hips, staring at his shortstop, with, to paraphrase FDR, no one to blame but blame itself.
Injuries? A problem, like they have been for the Yankees and several other teams. In reality, since the Red Sox got five games over .500 (40-35), their starting pitchers went into the Sunday Night game having dropped 20 of 32 with a 4.79 ERA.
But if Boston's two best starters -- Lester and Clay Buchholz -- are pitching as hoped, the Red Sox have the hope that if Josh Beckett's back is all right, the rotation can be stabilized for the last month, and if their chosen closer, Andrew Bailey, can be healthy and a major factor down the stretch, they have a chance at a Wild Card playoff spot. But it has to start by winning five or six out of seven during a homestand against the Angels and Royals before going on nine-game West Coast trip.
This Los Angeles-Boston series begins a fascinating run to October, because the failure of one or both of the teams to make the postseason could lead their ownerships to make difficult decisions. The Angels' Arte Moreno not only has the Rangers in his sights, but now the Dodgers are the rising giant of the West and a serious rival for Los Angeles media dollars and attention.
This is an Angels team that has a rookie, Mike Trout, who is the best player in the league, a dynamo of energy and skills reminiscent of a man named Al Kaline, who won the batting title at the age of 20.
They have Albert Pujols, a future Hall of Famer. Mark Trumbo is making a run at 40 homers. Torii Hunter is hitting .300. Jered Weaver is in the AL Cy Young Award discussion. The problem is no other member of their $70M rotation has as many wins as Bartolo Colon.
The Angels were 10 games over .500 and trending up on June 28. In their past 45 games going into Sunday, their starters were 15-17 with a 5.63 ERA, and in 42 percent of those games -- 19 of 45 -- the starter did not get them into the sixth inning. The Halos are a team built on starting-pitcher innings with the understanding -- after Ernesto Frieri was acquired from San Diego -- that the soft underbelly was always going to be middle relief. When starters don't get into the sixth, asking the soft underbelly to get at least 12 of the 27 outs means they drove to The Big A Sunday nine games behind Texas and four games behind the Athletics in the loss column, fifth in the AL Wild Card race, three games ahead the Wild Card sixth-place team, the Red Sox.
This brings us back to the Rays. Despite their payroll and the narrow vision of the First-Year Player Draft alignment -- which does not reward small-market success -- the Rays essentially know what they will have in terms of pitching for the next three years. Beyond Weaver, the Angels do not, especially since the Dan Haren trade depleted them of two top-of-the-rotation starting left-handers. Neither do the Yankees, who face CC Sabathia's elbow, Hiroki Kuroda's age and the realization that Phil Hughes is nearing free agency. Nor the Red Sox, whose money owed to Beckett and John Lackey and the stalling of some of their pitching prospects will leave them in an offshore fog this winter.
Of course the chances of a Price-Cueto Game 7 closed out by either Aroldis Chapman or Rodney are remote. On Opening Day, we had it as Weaver against Matt Cain, and the tides will continue to ebb and flow right down to the night of Oct. 3, a reality we will all be reminded of when the Angels arrive at Fenway Park on Tuesday night.
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.