The Rays enter this weekend's three-game series in the Bronx 8 1/2 games behind the Yankees in the Wild Card race and a half-game behind the Angels, who just left the Bronx having dropped two of three to the Bombers. I don't really see either of those two seems as a significant threat to the Yankees' chances of making the postseason. However, the Yankees and Rays do have nine games remaining against each other, so, at the moment, it is possible for the Rays to sweep their way into the Wild Card spot. A single win in this series, however, puts the Yankees in charge of the Rays' destiny as the Yankees' lead over the Rays would then exceed the number of games they have remaining against each other.
Thus far this season, these two teams have been pretty closely matched. The Yankees hold a slight 5-4 game advantage in the season series and have outscored the Rays by just four runs, but the Rays took four of their seven head-to-head contests in July and have since upgraded their roster by finally calling up top prospect Desmond Jennings and installing him in left field in place of the overextended Sam Fuld.
Fuld caused a sensation in April with a hot bat and circus catches, but has hit just .202/.267/.310 dating back to April 28. Jennings, long tabbed as Carl Crawford's replacement, has hit .333/.422/.597 with eight stolen bases in 19 games since being called up in late July, a promotion that was delayed slightly by a broken finger. That's a significant and overdue upgrade, though one that might prove to have come too late to salvage the Rays' postseason hopes.
Similarly, the Rays finally threw up their hands after watching Reid Brignac and Elliot Johnson make like the shortstop version of Jeff Mathis for nearly four months (combined .184/.231/.263 in 304 at-bats at the position). Concurrent to Jennings' late-July promotion, they installed utility man Sean Rodriguez at shortstop. Shortstop had been Rodriguez's primary position in his first five minor league seasons, but he hadn't played there regularly since 2007 and had made just three starts at short in the majors and none in the minors since becoming a Ray in 2009. That move hasn't worked nearly as well. Rodriguez has hit just .183/.310/.250 since July 22 (his first in his recent string of starts at shortstop), and the small-sample returns on his fielding at the position are about what you'd expect from a player moved off the position while still in his early twenties. Despite the improvement in on-base percentage, that's a net downgrade as, according to Ulimate Zone Rating, Brignac's defense had been average and Johnson's had been exceptional.
One other note before we get to the pitching matchups. On July 28, the Rays set a record by starting a pitcher under the age of 30 for the 705th consecutive time. The last untrustworthy pitcher to start for the Rays was Jae Seo back on May 24, 2007. Since then, the Rays have won two division titles, one pennant, and used just 14 starters, a major league low over that span. I don't feel like that record got enough coverage. That's a tremendous accomplishment, owing as much to health and good fortune as fantastic player development and acquisition.
Here are the Rays' starters, in order of appearance, since Seo's last start:
With Seo, these are the only starters the Rays have used in the last five seasons. That's crazy. The Yankees started 14 different pitchers in 2007 alone, only one of whom, Phil Hughes, is still on the team's 40-man roster (by comparison, eight of the 14 pitchers listed above are are on the Rays' 40-man). It seems to me that any explanation of the Rays' recent success needs to lean heavily on a discussion of that starting rotation.
CC Sabathia (16-6, 2.81) vs. David Price (9-10, 3.89), Friday, August 12, 7:05, YES
Sabathia has faced the Rays twice this year, those two starts coming 11 days apart in July. His aggregate line in those to outings:
17 IP, 9 H, 2 R, 1 HR, 5 BB, 17 K
In the first, he beat James Shields by throwing a shutout at home. In the second, he lost a 2-1 game to Shields, twirling another complete game in the process.
Price hasn't been as good as Shields this season, particularly lately. In his last seven starts, dating back to the beginning of July, Price has gone 1-4 with a 5.18 and the Rays have gone 1-6 in those games (in part because they have scored more than one run in just three of them). Price's main bugaboo over that span has been the home run. He has allowed nine in those seven starts at a rate of nearly two per nine innings pitched. He has also been inefficient, averaging just shy of six innings per start while averaging 112 pitches per start over his last six. Included in that stretch are two starts against the Yankees, one of which was actually his best outing since June (7 1/3 IP, 2 R), but came in a game in which Freddy Garcia and the Yankee bullpen didn't allow a run. Price has a 5.71 ERA against the Yankees in three starts this season, but each successive outing against New York has been better than the last.
Phil Hughes (2-4, 7.11) vs. Jeremy Hellickson (10-7, 3.05), Saturday, August 13, 4:10 FOX
Toss out the relief appearance on Sunday in which he needed just four batters to take the loss in the series finale against Boston. Hughes' last start was outstanding. Facing the White Sox in their homer-happy home park, Hughes held Chicago scoreless for six innings, allowing just three singles and striking out four against no walks while not allowing a runner past first base. It only took Hughes 65 pitches to do that, a whopping 74 percent of which were strikes, but rain ended the game there, awarding Hughes a six-inning shutout. The Yankees can't expect Hughes to be that good this time out, but he has allowed two or fewer runs in four of his five starts since returning from the disabled list, showing improvement along the way. it's worth remembering that Hughes' relief appearance came on what would have been regular rest for a start, and this start comes on what would have been an extra day's rest had that relief outing been a start. That's a lot of inactivity (13 pitches in a ten-day span) for a pitcher looking to build himself back up.
Hellickson has allowed more than three earned runs in a game just twice in 20 starts in this, his rookie season. He owes a great deal of his success to luck on balls in play (.226 BABIP), and his strikeout rate (which was a gaudy 9.8 K/9 in the minors) has been inconsistent, but, as I've been saying all season, as one of the top prospects in the game coming into this season (number six overall per Baseball America), Hellickson seems more likely to see his performance rise to match is results than his results drop to the level of his performance. In mid July, in his lone career start against the Yankees, Hellickson held the Bombers to two runs over seven innings while striking out seven.
Freddy Garcia (10-7, 3.16) vs. James Shields (11-9, 2.80), Sunday, August 14, 1:05, YES/TBS
In four of his last six starts, James Shields has thrown at least seven innings while allowing no more than one run. In the other two, he allowed 16 runs in ten frames. The two duds were the exception as Shields leads the majors with eight complete games and the American League with four shutouts. Among those four recent strong outings were two starts against the Yankees in which Shields assembled this combined line:
15 2/3 IP, 10 H, 2 R, (1 ER), 4 BB, 11 K
In the first of those two games, which came in the Bronx, Shields took a complete game loss after his own throwing error brought in an earned run in a 1-0 game in which CC Sabathia threw a shutout. In the rematch with Sabathia, Shields allowed one run in 7 2/3 innings as his bullpen held on to give Sabathia the complete-game loss in a 2-1 game.
In his last two starts, Shields has compiled this line:
16 1/3 IP, 9 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 HR, 6 BB, 14 K
The latter of those two starts was an eight-strikeout shutout of the Royals.
The success the Yankees have had with Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon this season has really been staggering. Garcia currently boasts the second-best ERA+ of his 13-year career and he has a 6.0 K/9 over 20 starts for the first time since 2004. In his last four starts, he is 3-0 with a 2.13 ERA. In his last ten he is 6-2 with a 2.53 ERA, and despite being a fly ball pitcher working in a homer-happy stadium in a homer-happy division, he hasn't allowed a home run in any of those ten starts, a total of 64 innings. That last likely brings luck into the discussion, but in general, Garcia hasn't been lucky (.304 BABIP over those ten starts, higher over the last four), he's just been good. Speaking of which, in his only start against the Rays this season, which came on July 20, he held the Rays scoreless for 6 2/3 innings while striking out seven against no walks.
Tampa Bay Rays
2011 Third-Order Record:
Manager: Joe Maddon
General Manager: Andrew Friedman
Home Ballpark: Tropicana Field
Bill James Park Indexes (2008-2010):
LH Avg-98; LH HR-92
RH Avg-97; RH HR-96
Who has replaced whom:
• Desmond Jennings (mL) has replaced Justin Ruggiano (DL)
• Wade Davis (DL) has replaced Alex Cobb (DL)
• Juan Cruz (DL) has replaced Dane De La Rosa (mL), who replaced Alexander Torres (mL) during the last series between these two teams
1B - Casey Kotchman (L)
2B - Ben Zobrist (S)
SS - Sean Rodriguez (R)
3B - Evan Longoria (R)
C - Kelly Shoppach (R)
RF - Matthew Joyce (L)
CF - B.J. Upton (R)
LF - Desmond Jennings (R)
DH - Johnny Damon (L)
R - Robinson Chirinos (C)
L - Sam Fuld (OF)
L - Reid Brignac (IF)
S - Elliot Johnson (UT)
L - David Price
R - Jeremy Hellickson
R- James Shields
R - Jeff Niemann
R - Wade Davis
R - Kyle Farnsworth
R - Joel Peralta
R - Juan Cruz
L - J.P. Howell
L - Cesar Ramos
R - Brandon Gomes
L - Jake McGee
OF - Justin Ruggiano (left knee bursitis)
C - John Jaso (right oblique strain)
C - Jose Lobaton (sprained left knee)
RHP - Alex Cobb (right hand discomfort)
R - Desmond Jennings (LF)
L - Johnny Damon (DH)
R - Evan Longoria (3B)
S - Ben Zobrist (2B)
L - Casey Kotchman (1B)
R - B.J. Upton (CF)
L - Matt Joyce (RF)
R - Kelly Shoppach (C)
R - Sean Rodriguez (SS)