Weekend sweeps bring AL picture into focus as Red Sox pad AL East lead
Heading into Friday's action, the competition between the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox for the American League East lead was the second-closest race in baseball, behind only the battle for first place in the National League Central. At that point, the Rays were just 2 1/2 games behind Boston, but with the Red Sox sweeping the lowly White Sox and the Rays being swept by potential Wild Card Game opponents the A's this weekend, the Red Sox have built their lead up to 5 1/2 games with just 24 left to play and just three head-to-head games remaining between the two teams.
The Red Sox are obviously a long way from locking up the division. Their magic number is a still-robust 21 and it was just two years ago that the Rays overcame a nine-game deficit at exactly this point in the season (after Boston's 137th game) to knock the Red Sox out of the then-only wild-card spot. Then again, what happened in 2011 was one of the greatest collapses/comebacks in major league history, hardly the sort of thing that one can expect to happen again any time soon. Heading into Sunday's series finales, Baseball Prospectus's Playoff Odds Report gave the Red Sox an 88.9 percent chance of winning the division, a chance that one imagines now exceeds 90 percent since the Red Sox gained another game on the Rays on Sunday.
Simply put, a three-game shift in the standings is a big deal at this point in the season, and while there's still a lot of baseball to be played, it's very possible that the Rays recent slump and the Red Sox's concurrent surge marks the moment that the 2013 Red Sox iced the AL East title.
It's fair to point out that the Red Sox swept a last-place team, while the Rays were swept by a likely playoff team, but the Rays are now 1-7 in their last eight games including a series loss at home to the sub-.500 Angels. Since the end of their big surge in July, the Rays have gone 11-17 (.393). The primary reason for that skid has been the complete collapse of their offense. The Rays have scored just 3.2 runs per game in those 28 contests. By way of comparison, the Marlins have scored 3.2 runs per game on the season, and the second-worst offense in baseball has scored 3.8 on the season as a whole.
Among the culprits have been rookie Wil Myers, who was hitting .331/.368/.532 in 35 games on July 30, but has hit just .215/.321/.323 since, and first baseman James Loney, who has turned back into a pumpkin, hitting .259/.315/.306 over those last 28 games after hitting an uncharacteristic .316/.363/.463 through the first four months of the season. Center fielder Desmond Jennings has just six hits since returning from the disabled list on August 19, hitting .143/.280/.167 in a dozen games since his return. Even Evan Longoria, though he has put up big power numbers over that stretch (7 homers, .514 slugging), has hit just .229 with a .306 on-base percentage during the Rays' skid.
Beyond those four regulars, part-time and platoon players Jose Molina, Kelly Johnson, Sean Rodriguez, Sam Fuld, and Luke Scott combined to hit .209/.276/.269 in 199 plate appearances in August. The Rays have received solid production from waiver-trade acquisition David DeJesus, and a hot streak by Jose Lobaton has helped compensate for Molina's typical lack of production behind the plate. Unfortunately, those positive contributions by part-timers have not been able to outweigh the slumps of the regulars above, leaving the Rays with little to show for the still solid performances of their pitching staff.
The Red Sox, meanwhile, have now won seven of their last eight, the exact inverse of the Rays' record over that stretch, including series wins over the Dodgers and Orioles, the latter a playoff hopeful, the former a playoff lock and the hottest team in baseball in August. Boston hasn't lost more than three games in a row all season, something the Rays have now done five times having just lost their fourth straight game on Sunday, and the Sox hold a 10-6 advantage in the season series against the Rays.
The Red Sox do have the tougher schedule down the stretch, welcoming the Tigers to Fenway on Monday and playing 19 of their last 24 games against teams currently boasting winning records while the Rays play just 14 of their last 27 against current winning teams. However, as their number of remaining games suggests, the Rays have just one off-day remaining this season, that coming a week from Monday on September 9. Weather permitting, they will play 20 straight games to end the season, while the Red Sox have the final three Mondays of the season off. The Rays should now be more concerned about the fact that there are three teams within 3 1/2 games of their current position in the second wild-card spot than they should be about the Red Sox. Meanwhile, the team that just swept them, the A's, can continue to chase the AL West title knowing that only one of those three teams, the Orioles who avoided a sweep with a 7-3 win in New York on Sunday, is within 5 1/2 games of their wild-card lead.