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Breaking down the (slight) wild card hopes for Rays and Cardinals

The September of No Races looks a bit more interesting now than it did a couple of weeks ago. The Rangers have been unable to shake the Angels in the NL West, but it was weekend sweeps by apparent pretenders the Rays and Cardinals that added most of the intrigue to baseball's flagging storylines.

As recently as the morning of September 3, Tampa Bay was nine games behind Boston in the AL wild card chase, having lost four of its last five games and seemingly doomed to its turn as the odd team out in the AL East's annual three-for-two tournament. Ten days later, that gap is three games, as the Rays have gone 8-1 while the Red Sox have dropped seven of nine, both records affected by the Rays' three-game sweep over the Sox at Tropicana Field last weekend.

How we got here is a tale of two rotations. The Rays have gotten eight quality starts in their last nine games from their celebrated homegrown starting pitchers. The five starters the Rays have used in this stretch have accounted for all but 13 of the team's starts this season, a health record most teams would envy. Those starters got wins in six of the games; in two of the others, the bullpen blew a lead but the offense saved the Rays, pulling out games in extra innings against the Rangers and Red Sox. All told, the Rays are allowing just three runs a game in this stretch.

Contrast that with the Red Sox. In their 2-7 run, they've had just four games started by pitchers who might be one of their top three guys in a postseason series, and have had to dip down as deep as what might be considered their No. 8 (Andrew Miller) and No. 9 (Kyle Weiland) starters. The results have been ugly: 59 runs allowed in nine games (despite a shutout and a 1-0 loss mixed in there) and just three quality starts, none since September 6. The Sox just went through a rotation cycle -- Tim Wakefield, Andrew Miller, John Lackey, Kyle Weiland, Jon Lester -- without a quality start, but also by using just one pitcher, Lester, who has a case for a postseason role.

The Rays have a healthy rotation pitching well. The Red Sox have their backup rotation pitching poorly. That's why there's a wild-card race in the AL.

Maybe.

See, now you get to talk about math, and the math doesn't like the underdog. Analyst Clay Davenport calculates the Rays' chance of winning the wild card at 8.8 percent, about one in 11. Davenport looks not just at the standings, but at the team's performance to date and its upcoming schedule. Both those things favor the Red Sox. Despite the current level of panic, let's recall that this team won two of every three games it played for about four-and-a-half months, and was in first place less than two weeks ago. The Red Sox have stronger talent and a better underlying performance than the Rays have, although the pitching injuries have chipped away at both those things.

The schedule is the big issue, though. Here's how the last 16 days of the season shape up for the two teams:

Red Sox: 2 vs. TOR, 4 vs. TB, 4 vs. BAL, 3 @ NYY, 3 @ BAL

Rays: 2 @ BAL, 4 @ BOS, 4 @ NYY, 3 vs. TOR, 3 vs. NYY

Solve for X, and the big difference is this: the Red Sox have seven games left with the Orioles and three with the Yankees; the Rays have two left with the Orioles and seven with the Yankees. Even if you ding the Yankees' expected level of performance down a notch for being in preparing-for-postseason mode, that's a huge difference. After this weekend, the differences become that much more concentrated: the Red Sox finish the season with seven of 10 games against the Orioles, the Rays have seven of 10 against the Yankees.

If the Rays are going to catch the Red Sox, they're going to have to take at least three of the four games in Fenway Park, beginning Thursday. That's their primary, really their lone, path to October. They need to leave Boston next Sunday evening with the gap down to no more than a game, because making up more than that with no more head-to-head matchups and a much harder schedule will probably be too much to ask -- and even making up a game is asking a lot.

Can they pull this off? Well, they'll be taking the same team into Boston they've been playing with, and adding the game's No. 1 pitching prospect, Matt Moore, to their bullpen. A big-time lefthanded weapon could be significant against the Red Sox and all their lefthanded power, and the comps to David Price's debut in 2008 have been flying fast and furious. Let's remember, though, that a year ago the Rays tried the same thing with Jacob McGee, who while not quite as celebrated as the other two lefties, was held in high regard at the time. McGee made eight appearances, none of them in high-leverage spots. Moore could make a difference, or he could have a good seat for the Rays' defining games. The Rays will have their top four starters set to pitch in the series, with Jeremy Hellickson opening on Thursday and followed by James Shields, Jeff Niemann and David Price.

The Red Sox' rotation is in flux. Josh Beckett threw a bullpen session Monday on his sprained right ankle, and seems likely to return at some point this weekend. Erik Bedard isn't to that point yet and probably won't be available. Clay Buchholz will throw off a mound today, and Theo Epstein indicated that he could be used out of the bullpen when he returns -- although that may not be in time for this series. The Red Sox could pull Alfredo Aceves, so effective as a long reliever, out of the bullpen to make a start. As it stands now, we know that Lester will start Friday against Shields; everything else is up in the air.

Whether the Rays are really 8-1 underdogs depends on how many of the Red Sox' remaining games -- especially the ones this weekend -- are started by the guys they built around, and how many are started by the shock troops. The math, though, reinforces the key point: that even though Sox fans aren't handling the situation well -- neither is the team itself, as indicated in comments by David Ortiz, who said in the Boston Herald, "Yeah, you've got to panic" -- the Red Sox remain a strong favorite to reach the postseason. It is very difficult to blow a big lead late in the season, because having a big lead late in the season is a sign that you're a pretty good team. The most likely scenario is that the Red Sox remind everyone of that over the season's last two weeks, and end up in the postseason as the wild card.

Over in the NL, the Cardinals matched the Rays by sweeping the wild card leader at home over the weekend, taking three games from the Braves to cut their deficit in the wild card race to 4 ½ games. That gap remained unchanged last night, as the Cards suffered a bad loss to the Pirates (blowing a late lead) and the Braves lost to to the Marlins in extra innings. Not making up ground, though, is losing time; the Cards' situation is more dire than that of the Rays because of the lack of head-to-head opportunities. They have a weak closing schedule -- only the Phillies, among their final five opponents, have a winning record -- and like the Rays, are chasing a team that's missing two starting pitchers.

The Braves, however, have significantly more pitching depth than do the Sox, and have gotten good work from prospects Randall Delgado and Julio Teheran. There's no Miller or Weiland -- a blowout waiting to happen -- starting games for them. The Braves' offense remains shaky, but Fredi Gonzalez's decision to move Chipper Jones into the No. 2 spot in the batting order at least puts the team in the best position to succeed, with the OBP placed in front of the power. Like the Cardinals, the Braves' only games against a good team over the last five series come against the Phillies, and those occur in the last series of the season, so they will almost certainly not get a full dose of the four aces as the Phillies prepare for the Division Series.

The differences in the two races are reflected in Davenport's numbers. Whereas the Rays, with four head-to-head games, a smaller deficit and being a stronger team to date are given an 11 percent chance, the Cardinals, on the wrong side of all those factors, come in at 4 percent (with an additional 200-1 shot at winning the NL Central, where they trail the Brewers by 6 ½), or about a 24-1 underdog. Put differently, if the Braves go a conservative 7-7 against that soft closing slate, the Cardinals have to bring it in at 12-3 just to get to a one-game playoff -- and remember that four of those games are this weekend in Philadelphia. It could happen, but it's highly unlikely.

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