By Joe Lemire
September 15, 2011

The Rays were nine games behind the Red Sox in the wild card standings as recently as Sept. 2, but they enter a four-game series at Fenway Park on Thursday in control of their own destiny. It is still a considerable margin to overcome -- and probably won't be overcome -- but if Tampa Bay sweeps Boston for the second consecutive weekend, the two clubs will be tied with 10 games remaining.

While the probability of the Rays actually making the playoffs is slim -- gives them a 4.8 percent chance; Baseball Prospectus says it's only 1.6 percent likely -- they have at least injected some interest into the seasons final few weeks and do have a few things going in their favor that could help their longshot odds:

* The Rays are 8-3 in their last 11; the Sox are 3-8.
* The Rays are 39-29 in regular-season games against the Sox since the start of 2008. During that time the Rays won four straight meetings four times, though only once were the four games in the same series.
* The Rays continue to get outstanding starting pitching (see below) while the Red Sox are scrambling to fill starts, though Josh Beckett returns on Friday.

So while the chance of the Rays overtaking the Sox is very small, they have been playing much better baseball of late and overtake the Red Sox by a spot in this week's Power Rankings.

NOTE: All stats are updated through Wednesday, Sept. 14.

MLB Power Rankings
1 Philadelphia Phillies
Last Week: 1
There was no more fitting way for the Phillies to clinch a playoff berth than to do so with a complete-game shutout from one of its aces. On Wednesday Roy Halladay did the honors, defeating the Astros 1-0 on six hits and one walk as Philadelphia blanked an opponent for a major-league-leading 21st time this season and the seventh in which the starter went the distance. This was Halladay's eighth complete game, which leads the NL, and the club's 18th, which leads the majors.
2 New York Yankees
Last Week: 2
Derek Jeter's big, round number arrived in dramatic fashion on a Saturday afternoon with a 5-for-5 day that included a home run and a game-winning single to reach and pass 3,000 career hits. Mariano Rivera, however, wasn't as fortunate to get his milestone on as grand a stage. On Tuesday night, Rivera became only the second pitcher in history to save his 600th game but did so in Seattle just before 1 a.m. Eastern time. It was his 41st save of the season, and his 7.86 strikeouts-per-nine-innings ratio is the second-best of his career. Having pitched more than one inning only twice in his 59 appearances, Rivera is likely well rested for the postseason.
3 Detroit Tigers
Last Week: 7
The Tigers have reeled off 12 straight wins, their longest such streak since 1934. No one has performed better than starting pitcher Doug Fister, who has thrown five consecutive starts of at least seven innings and no more than one earned run. It's a post-trade hot streak that the Detroit Free-Press has likened to the Tigers' acquisition of Doyle Alexander in 1987, which was the last time the club won a division title. One problem for Tigers fans with that comparison to Alexander: the cost of the trade was a young prospect by the name of John Smoltz.
4 Texas Rangers
Last Week: 4
According to a Bill James metric in which a player's recent performance adds or subtracts from a room temperature of 72 degrees, three of the majors' four hottest hitters entering play on Tuesday were Rangers -- Adrian Beltre (112 degrees), Ian Kinsler (102) and Mike Napoli (99) with the Cubs' Bryan LaHair (100) in-between. At the time Beltre had a hit in all 10 games since his return from the DL and had gone 11-for-20 (.550) with three homers in his previous four games; Kinsler had started September on a power spree, batting 17-for-42 (.405) with seven home runs in 10 games; and Napoli was 10 for his last 18 (.556) with three homers. By Wednesday David Murphy soared to 100 degrees thanks to a two-homer game.
5 Milwaukee Brewers
Last Week: 3
The more starts a team gets from its original rotation, the better off it is. At least that is usually the case, and the Brewers are Exhibit A in 2011. Milwaukee has used only six starting pitchers -- the fewest of any team in the majors -- and relied on that sixth starter, Marco Estrada, only seven times. While neither Estrada nor original No. 5 starter Chris Narveson has been all that good of late, neither will have to make a playoff start. The other four have logged seven quality starts in their last nine turns with one of those misses a one-run, nine-strikeout start by Zack Greinke that lasted only five innings.
6 Arizona Diamondbacks
Last Week: 6
In the same week in which the Diamondbacks caught the Brewers to tie for the second-best record in the NL, which could provide homefield advantage in the first round of the playoffs, Arizona demonstrated why that matters. It capped a 15-game home winning streak, the longest in the majors this season and the longest in franchise history. The other D-backs streak to recently end: catcher Miguel Montero had a career-best 18-game hitting streak (25-for-71, .372) stopped on Monday.
7 Tampa Bay Rays
Last Week: 8
The Rays' starting pitchers set a goal of 1,000 innings for the 2010 season -- an average of 200 from each of the five rotation slots -- and they're on track to blow past that lofty figure for the first time in franchise history one year after missing by a single out. (In '10 their starters threw 999 2/3 innings.) Through 148 games this season, the starters have logged a major-league-leading 978 2/3 innings, a pace for 1,071 over 162 games, which would rank fourth in the last 15 years. The rotation has keyed the Rays' recent run, and now their best pitching prospect, starter Matt Moore, has been summoned from the minors, though he will pitch out of the bullpen.
8 Boston Red Sox
Last Week: 5
The Red Sox suffered through a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week. Tampa Bay went from Boston's distant challenger for the wild card to a threat after sweeping a three-game series from the Sox in Florida. Injured starting pitchers Josh Beckett and Erik Bedard had to watch that one, and two days later DH David Ortiz was scratched with back spasms. Even the good karma of Tuesday night when the Sox beat the Blue Jays 18-5 -- during which they became the first team to eclipse 800 runs; Dustin Pedroia homered twice; Tim Wakefield (finally) won his 200th career game; and they added a one-game cushion to their wild card lead -- didn't last long. On Wenesday, normally dependable set-up man Daniel Bard blew his third lead this month in a loss to the Blue Jays.
9 Los Angeles Angels
Last Week: 10
Dan Haren spun his third shutout of the season on Saturday, holding the Yankees to just four hits to go along with a one-hitter against the Indians in April and a two-hitter against the Tigers in July; all three have come against teams that were .500 or better at the time. Impressively, Saturday's shutout was Haren's major-league-leading 13th start in which he did not walk an opposing hitter. His 6.29 strikeout-to-walk ratio leads all AL starters.
10 St. Louis Cardinals
Last Week: 11
The Cardinals announced a two-year contract extension for starter Chris Carpenter on Tuesday for a reported $21 million, erasing the existing team option for $15 million. It would seem that the pitcher settled for less than he could have gotten even after a season slightly below his high standards -- he's 9-9 with a 3.75 ERA in 206 1/3 innings -- but it ensures that he remains with a club that has a chance to win. Co-ace Adam Wainwright is due back in the rotation next year, and Carpenter's returning might help persuade free agent-to-be Albert Pujols to do the same.
11 Atlanta Braves
Last Week: 9
Only nine times in baseball history has a pitcher finished a season with at least 50 innings and struck out more than 14 batters per nine innings, and Braves rookie closer Craig Kimbrel is on track to be the 10th. His K/9 is 14.86 so far, and his 44 saves are already a major league rookie record. Kimbrel, 23, who recently gave up his first run in 37 2/3 innings, would be the second-youngest on that 50-inning, 14-K/9 list; Byung-Hyun Kim was 21 when he had a 14.14 K/9 with the Diamondbacks in 2000.
12 San Francisco Giants
Last Week: 12
Before the season lefthander Madison Bumgarner was the top candidate to suffer a setback due to the Verducci Effect, a correlation noted by SI's Tom Verducci that significant increases in innings for young pitchers often leads to regression the following season. Bumgarner fit the mold for his first four starts, going just 17 1/3 innings with a 7.79 ERA and only nine strikeouts. Since then, however, Bumgarner has been brilliant, pitching 169 1/3 innings over his next 26 starts with a 2.87 ERA and 169 strikeouts, cutting his ERA to 3.33 while doubling his K/9 rate.
13 Toronto Blue Jays
Last Week: 13
Is Jose Bautista having the greatest year a Blue Jays position player has ever had? It's close. On the franchise's all-time single-season leaderboard, Bautista ranks second in slugging (.628), third in OBP (.444), third in OPS (1.072) and tied for fifth in home runs (42). His OPS+ -- which adjusts OPS for that year's average and the ballparks in which he's played -- is a 187, which edges out John Olerud's 186 in 1993. Similarly, Bautista's Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is 8.2, tied with Olerud.
14 Los Angeles Dodgers
Last Week: 16
At the time the Dodgers fired hitting coach Jeff Pendleton on July 20, first baseman James Loney was batting .263 with four home runs and a meager .337 slugging percentage. There was no overnight solution, but under new hitting coach Dave Hansen, Loney has turned around his season. On Aug. 21 he went 4-for-4 and since that day he ranks second among NL hitters with a .381 batting average; of his 32 hits, 16 have gone for extra bases and he's slugged .679 to raise his season slugging to .389. The team's record is 31-20 (.608) with 4.4 runs per game since Hansen took over and was 42-55 (.433) with 3.6 runs per game under Pendleton.
15 Cincinnati Reds
Last Week: 18
Reserve Juan Francisco caused a stir Monday when he crushed (possibly) the season's longest home run -- either 482 or 502 feet, depending on whom you trust -- but either way it was far beyond the outfield walls and another example of the Reds' deep power supply. Cincinnati is on its way toward leading the NL in homers for the second straight year. Joey Votto is two homers away from joining Jay Bruce at 30 homers, which would make them the third pair of teammates to reach that number this year. Seven Reds have hit at least 11 homers, tied for the most in league.
16 Washington Nationals
Last Week: 19
Only six major league middle infielders age 25 or younger have played 140 games this season, and two of them are the Nationals' double-play combination. Shortstop Ian Desmond, 25, and second baseman Danny Espinosa, 24, have played to mixed reviews this year. Desmond has a sub-.300 OBP and has made 22 errors, prompting to speculate the Nationals may seek a free-agent shortstop this winter (possibly Jose Reyes or Jimmy Rollins). Espinosa, meanwhile, has had a poor second-half of the season but still has 19 home runs and an above-average Ultimate Zone Rating, suggesting he's played more than capable defense.
17 Chicago White Sox
Last Week: 14
The White Sox haven't had a good stretch of starting pitching lately -- both Mark Buehrle and John Danks were lit up for at least seven runs in the past week -- but overall the club still leads the AL with the most strikeouts (1,119) and the fewest walks (396) for a 2.83 K/BB rate that trails only the Phillies (by 0.32) and the Brewers (by 0.002) and is a full 0.35 better than any other AL team this season. It also obliterates Chicago's previous franchise record of 2.49, set in 2008.
18 Cleveland Indians
Last Week: 15
Only two AL teams have two relievers who have both reached 20 holds -- the Yankees' celebrated duo of David Robertson and Rafael Soriano and the decidedly uncelebrated Indians' pair of Tony Sipp and Vinnie Pestano. The lefthanded Sipp has 22 holds with a 2.58 ERA and 7.9 K/9; the righthanded Pestano has 20 holds with a 2.40 ERA and a stellar 12.1 K/9. Lefty Rafael Perez (2.73 ERA) and righty Joe Smith (1.93 ERA) have often pitched in lower leverage situations (11 and 12 holds, respectively) but complement Sipp and Pestano as impressive bullpen quartet ahead of closer Chris Perez.
19 Colorado Rockies
Last Week: 21
The brilliance of September call-ups for clubs no longer in contention is that it gives on-the-verge prospects a taste of big-league life while whetting the appetite of fans for next year. Lefthanded starter Drew Pomeranz ably filled the role for the Rockies on Sunday. Pomeranz, one of the pitchers Colorado received from the Indians for Ubaldo Jimenez, threw five shutout innings against the Reds, allowing just two hits and two walks, to win his major league debut. Pomeranz raced through the minors in one year, compiling a 1.78 ERA in 101 innings in High Class A and Double-A before skipping Triple-A altogether.
20 New York Mets
Last Week: 17
While most of the attention surrounding the Mets' home game on September 11th has centered around the Major League Baseball's decision not to let players wear FDNY and NYPD caps, what has been overlooked is that the Mets' handling of the anniversary was first-rate. It also has clouded the fact that Jason Bay -- yes, that Jason Bay -- is red hot. He doubled and walked in the 9/11 game Sunday to cap a week in which he went 13-for-27 (.481) with two home runs and 10 RBIs for which he earned NL Player of the Week honors.
21 Florida Marlins
Last Week: 23
An argument can be made that Mike Stanton is the best pure power hitter in the National League, and he is definitively the hitter most solely focused on power. Stanton is the only one of the 70 NL hitters with at least 110 hits who has more extra-base hits (62) than singles (61); he has smacked 25 doubles, five triples and 32 homers. And Stanton's isolated power rating, which is computed as slugging percentage minus average, is .281, making him the league's best at hitting for extra bases by 20 points.
22 Kansas City Royals
Last Week: 25
The Royals will soon match some offensive history. Only three times has a ballclub had four players with 40 or more doubles -- the 1929 Tigers, 1932 Phillies and 2006 Rangers -- but Kansas City is a pair of two-base hits from Billy Butler away from joining their elite group. Alex Gordon is tied for the majors' lead with 45 and is closely followed by Jeff Francoeur in third place with 44; Melky Cabrera and Billy Butler rank eighth and tied for 10th, respectively, with 40 and 38. The Royals don't have a chance at breaking the mark, however, as the fifth-most doubles on the team belong to Eric Hosmer, who has only 24.
23 Pittsburgh Pirates
Last Week: 20
Over the weekend the Pirates extended general manager Neal Huntington, whose contract was set to expire at the end of this season, through 2014 with a team option for 2015. Though the shine has worn off Pittsburgh's season -- the club is no longer contending for a playoff spot has locked up a 19th consecutive losing season -- Huntington accomplished the seemingly impossible: the franchise became relevant again. The Pirates had 16 midsummer sellouts thanks primarily to their dalliance with first place, and the building blocks are obviously in place for the future, not only at the major league level but also on the farm.
24 Chicago Cubs
Last Week: 22
Carlos Peña is a beacon of patience in the midst of the Cubs' lineup. The team has drawn the second-fewest total walks in the majors with 380, a rate of one every 14.85 plate appearances. Peña, however, leads the NL in walk frequency (and is second only to the Blue Jays' Jose Bautista), receiving a free pass every 6.30 plate appearances. He's been swinging a hot bat lately too. Since Aug. 29, he's 13-for-39 with four homers and 15 walks in 13 games for a scorching .333/.527/.821 batting line.
25 Oakland Athletics
Last Week: 24
With a three-run bomb on Monday night and a solo shot Wednesday afternoon, Josh Willingham reached 26 homers this year, the most by any Athletics player not named Jack Cust in the last five seasons. As bad as Oakland-Alameda Coliseum's reputation is for power hitters, Willingham has hit better at home (.269/.354/.542 with 14 homers in 60 games) than he has on the road (.241/.323/.435 with 12 homers in 63 games). The 32-year-old could be an attractive free agent this season.
26 Baltimore Orioles
Last Week: 27
After a strong rookie season in which Nolan Reimold hit .279/.365/.466 with 15 homers in 2009, he has struggled in the majors since and needs a strong finish this year to remain in the Orioles' plans. And A.J. Burnett seems to have helped his cause. Against the Yankees last week Reimold homered and walked twice against Burnett (and walked two more times against relievers), which may have sparked his bat: Reimold followed with multi-hit games in two of his next three starts. On the year, however, Reimold's batting line is just .239/.324/.426 with 10 homers in 262 plate appearances.
27 Seattle Mariners
Last Week: 26
The Mariners have been trying out young hitters all season and may have finally found a few that could stick. While the outfield has largely been a revolving door of misses -- Michael Saunders, Carlos Peguero and Greg Halman, among the 24-and-under crowd -- Seattle has had encouraging partial seasons from Dustin Ackley, Mike Carp, Trayvon Robinson and Kyle Seagar, all four of whom are (in an admittedly small sample size) hitting line drives on at least a quarter of their batted balls. With enough plate appearances, a hitter with 25 percent line drives would rank in the top 10 in the majors.
28 Houston Astros
Last Week: 29
Could Mark Melancon turn into a Derek Lowe-type closer? In between starting stints, Lowe spent a few years as the Red Sox closer, saving 42 games in his All-Star 2000 season thanks to a hard, groundball-inducing sinker. Melancon, whom the Astros acquired from the Yankees in last year's Lance Berkman trade, has the same pitch in his repertoire, and it has helped him save 17 games in his first stint as a team's closer. Opponents are hitting groundballs on 71.9 percent of pitches put into play off Melancon, the 10th-highest rate of all major league pitchers with at least 60 innings.
29 Minnesota Twins
Last Week: 28
It's easy to overdramatize sporting events and call them "lifechanging," but a pair of Michael Cuddyer home runs did just that. Cuddyer, the Twins' All-Star, hit two Double-A postseason homers in 2001 that extended the New Britain Rock Cats' season into the Eastern League championship which, as recounted in this story by, changed the flight plans of then-teammate Brad Thomas, who otherwise would have boarded one of the flights hijacked on 9/11.
30 San Diego Padres
Last Week: 30
Here's a curiosity: The Padres are batting 36 points better, reaching base 22 points more often and slugging 46 points higher against lefties than righties -- equating to a team OPS of .705 vs. lefties and .637 vs. righties -- yet their record this season is better when their opponent starts a righthanded pitcher. Against righty starters, the Padres are 45-60 (.428) but against lefties they're 18-27 (.400), even though only two (Will Venable and Brad Hawpe) of their 15 batters with at least 150 plate appearances this year are lefthanded.

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