Could this series be the end for the Tampa Bay Rays 2009 baseball season? The Yanks have a cozy 5 game lead at this point and a sweep would move the lead to an intimidating 9 games. A 3-1 split would still put the Rays a perilous 7 back. Why has Tampa struggled so much to this point (they just reached the .500 mark after last night’s win) and are they likely to bounce back?
So what has ailed the struggling Rays thus far? They have a young, up-and-coming lineup that was expected to compete neck-and-neck with the Yankees and Red Sox for the king of the A.L. hill crown. So what has hindered their development? The answer, in two words, is starting pitching. The Rays have actually gone from a team that was 9th in the A.L. in runs scored to the very top of the pile this year, but have conversely gone from 2nd in starters ERA to 9th (further demonstrating the preeminent value of that category).
2/5ths of their starting rotation from last year has completely blown up. Unsurprisingly, Andy Sonnanstine has reverted to form with a decidedly messy 7.07 ERA and 1.68 WHIP. More surprisingly, Rays erstwhile ace Scott Kazmir has followed suit going a Wangian 7.69 and 1.95 in his 9 starts. Kaz’ problems are once again health related as the diminutive lefty has been shelved for the time being and he is not scheduled to start this series. Sonnanstine, however, pitches Sunday against AJ Burnett who is coming off maybe his best outing of the season.
To further darken Tampa’s forecast, the injury bug has hit, DLing both Akinori Iwamura and stud breakout SS Jason Bartlett, he of the gaudy +1.000 OPS. So a 3-1 Yankee favored split pretty much ends it for these Rays, huh? Not so fast, eager, blood-smelling Yankee sharks. Filling in on the infield diamond is merely another +1.000 OPS guy in super-sub Ben Zobrist who has been tearing the proverbial cover off the ball.
Subbing for stashee Kazmir is simply the top prospect in baseball, left handed beast, David Price who goes tonight agains the CC Sabathia. One thing that will give a boost to all the pitchers is the continually superb defense, again ranked #1 in the AL and defense never really goes for hot and cold streaks.
Another reason why the Rays struggled so badly in the early going was due to the injury to BJ Upton who has struggled since his return but also has a +1.000 OPS in the last week and appears to be heating up. Their league leading offense may get even better with him revving up and Bartlett due back soon. That lineup is positively scary. Longoria, now in his second year is an absolute monster.
The bottom line is that I think the Rays are going to be in it for the long haul, so these games are huge. The Yankees have advantages in not having to face Shields this series and certainly the Sabathia price matchup as well as facing Sonnanstine on Sunday gives the bombers decisive edges in two games, but this is a really, really, really talented team that may just be getting going, coming off a convincing sweep of the (admittedly struggling) Royals. Three games this weekend into Monday would give the Yankees a much-needed playoff cushion to hold off an inevitable Ray’s charge from behind. What do you guys think? Will the Rays make a big run this year or was last year’s crown a bit of a fluke?
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