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The Strike Zone

Wild-card races calm down entering weekend play

The Cardinals opened a four-game series in Los Angeles with a 2-1 win on Thursday. (Harry How/Getty Images)

Thursday wasn’t a great day to be a wild-card challenger. The National League wild-card race took a step back from the brink as the Cardinals beat the Dodgers by an anemic 2-1 final to increase their lead for the second wild card spot to two games, and the Phillies blew a four-run lead to lose to the Astros and fall back to .500 and four games behind St. Louis while the rest of the field was idle. Meanwhile, in the American League, the Orioles completed a three-game sweep of the Rays with a 14-inning win, their second walk-off in a row, dropping Tampa Bay four games behind Baltimore and New York, who beat Boston to win consecutive games for the first time since August 14 and 15 and remain tied with the Orioles for the AL East lead and second AL wild card spot.

With less than 20 games left in the season, those four-game deficits are big and put the Rays and Phillies, the latter of whom only just poked their head into the race this week, on the verge of falling out of the playoff hunt. For example, the Cardinals and Phillies both have 18 games left this season. If the Cardinals play .500 ball the rest of the way, going 9-9, the Phillies would have to go 13-5 (.722) just to tie St. Louis and force a playoff. The Rays, Orioles, and Yankees all have 19 games left, but the math is much the same. We’re at the point at which mediocrity from the leader would necessitate a Herculean effort from the challenger to avoid elimination, while any kind of winning record from the leader the rest of the way would make them all but unreachable to a team currently four games behind.

That doesn’t mean the Rays and Phillies are finished. Even after Thursday’s loss, the Phillies have played .750 ball over their last 20 games, and the leaders in these races could very well slump the rest of the way, lowering the bar for their challengers, something the Cardinals and Yankees have been doing plenty of  in the last several weeks to begin with. Still, the margin for error for those teams is almost gone.

That’s particularly noteworthy for the Rays, who won six of their last eight, including series wins against the Yankees and Orioles, and were just one game behind in the wild-card race before coming to Baltimore this week, but have now fallen not just four games behind the AL East leaders, but a half-game behind the Angels, who salvaged a win against the A’s behind a triumphant return by Jered Weaver Thursday afternoon. The Rays now head up the coast to New York for a three-game series against the Yankees this weekend, their final three games against the Bombers this season, but being four games behind means that they can’t catch New York even with a head-to-head sweep, and they’ll need help from the rest of the league for their final three games against the Orioles, which take place in Florida on the final three days of the season, to mean something.

If the Rays do wind up falling short, one has to believe that the hamstring injury that kept Evan Longoria on the shelf for three months from May through early August, not two one-run losses to the Orioles, was the main culprit. It may be a bit too tidy of an explanation, but the numbers are striking. Longoria hit .329/.433/.561 in the Rays first 23 games and the team went 15-8. Without Longoria from May 1 to August 5, the Rays went 41-44. Longoria returned on August 7, and the Rays won his first six games back in the lineup and have gone 21-14 overall since his return. The cumulative records are hard to ignore:

  • With Longoria: 36-22 (.621)
  • Without Longoria: 41-44 (.482)

The Rays scored just 3.86 runs per game and their third basemen hit just .236/.310/.343 as a group during Longoria’s absence, but the team’s shortcomings didn’t end there. The team as a whole hit just .233/.304/.351 over that span with only the right fielders, primarily Ben Zobrist and Matt Joyce, in that order, putting together a respectable performance at the plate. Also, Longoria hasn’t been Mr. Universe since his return. He has started at designated hitter in two-thirds of his 33 games since coming off the disabled list and is hitting just .258/.319/.452 over that stretch. Still, the Rays would have been happy to have that in May, June, and July, and the fact that they didn’t could mean they’ll have a lot of free time in October.

Incidentally, for those wondering why the big story Thursday night wasn’t the finale of the season series between the Tigers and the White Sox, which was to pit Cy Young candidates Justin Verlander and Chris Sale against each other with the Detroit trailing Chicago by just one game in the American League Central, that game was rained out. It will be made up on Monday afternoon with Doug Fister and Gavin Floyd toeing the rubber, a matchup which may still favor the Tigers given Fister’s strong start in Chicago on Tuesday and Floyd’s recent return from the disabled list and short outing on Wednesday, but doesn’t come close to the matchup we lost Thursday night.

-- Cliff Corcoran
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