The AL Wild Card Race Just Got Real Interesting

When the Red Sox added Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford this past offseason, many baseball minds anointed them the favorites to win the World Series. On paper, there was plenty of reasoning behind those predictions, but a lot can happen over 162 games.

The Rays came into their three-game series against the Red Sox 6.5 games back in the AL Wild Card standings. After a home sweep – which included large crowds of Sox fans – the Rays have played there way to within 3.5 games of the Sox in the standings.

Sunday’s game was the icing on the cake for the Rays. They scored early on Jon Lester, working his pitch count and forcing him from the game after only four innings. Then, the offense took over, loading the bases in the fifth against Michael Bowden, which caused Sox manager Terry Francona to call Matt Albers in from the pen. Only a few pitches later and B.J. Upton was circling the bases, having driven in four runs on a grand slam shot that landed well into the seats just left of center field.

James Shields turned in another gritty performance, just missing his 12th complete game of the season, going 8 1/3 innings while allowing seven hits and one earned run with three walks and five strikeouts. 

For the Sox, Sunday’s game seemed to take a toll well beyond the collapse in the standings. They looked angry, frustrated, worn and beaten down.

The Sox have had a great season to this point. Their offense has scored the most runs in baseball and as a team they have the best run differential of any team in the big leagues. However, as of today, only two of their original starting rotation (Jon Lester and John Lackey) remain active and healthy – one could argue, however, that Lackey barely qualifies as a realistic starter at this point. Their bullpen has also taken a plunge as of late. Super set-up man Daniel Bard has a 6.52 ERA over the last 28 days, including seven earned runs in his last 4.2 innings pitched. Matt Albers posted a 2.55 ERA in the first half of the season, but has found very little success since (7.43 ERA in the second half). Dan Wheeler was on his way to a much improved second half of the season, but he has allowed six earned runs, including two home runs, in his last 11.1 innings pitched.

The Red Sox are now 2-9 in the month of September with a pitching staff filled with question marks. The Rays, on the other hand, are 7-3 with their entire rotation in tact. They have a chance to actually add to that depth should they call upon perhaps the game’s best pitching prospect, lefty Matt Moore.

The Rays have 17 games reaming, including a four-game series in Boston starting on Thursday. The significance of that series cannot be understated at this point, as the they have a chance to leave Boston with the lead in the Wild Card race. They’ll follow that series with four games in New York, including a double header, then back home for three games against the Blue Jays and then their final series of the regular season, a three-game set against the Yankees.

The Sox head home for ten games; two against the Blue Jays, four against the Rays and then four, including a double header, against the Orioles. Then it’s a six-game road trip to end the regular season starting with three against the Yankees and then three against the Orioles.

As Crazy as it sounds, with four games againt the Red Sox and four game against the Yankees still to play, the Rays actually have a chance to win the American League East, let alone the Wild Card.

We’ve long assumed that the Yankees and Red Sox were going to the playoffs this season. Now, however, those assumptions are in danger of becoming quite presumptuous. Everyone wants playoff races in September and thanks to a crumbling pitching staff in Boston and a thunderous surge by the Rays, we have one out east.

Derek Hanson

About Derek Hanson

Doctor by day, blogger by night, Derek Hanson is the founder of the Bloguin Network and has been a Patriots fan for more than 20 years.