Could "Rebuilding" Rays Make September Playoff Push?
At the start of the season, nobody expected the Tampa Bay Rays to be where they are now. Sitting 12 games over .500 at 75-63, Tampa Bay finds themselves trailing the Oakland Athletics for the second wild card spot in the American League by just seven games. Sure, seven games may seem like a lot, but we cannot be so quick to forget what the Rays did in the wild card race back in 2011. An epic collapse in the month of September by the Boston Red Sox saw the Rays take the lone wild card spot (before the MLB added a second wild card spot) in game 162 of the season.
On This Day in History...
Like I said before, the Tampa Bay Rays stormed into a wild card spot thanks to a Red Sox collapse in September. Headed into September 5th, 2011, the Rays sat at 77-63 which placed them seven games back from the wild card spot that the Red Sox held. Heading into September 5th of this year, the Rays sit seven games back of the Athletics for the second wild card spot at 75-63.
Since late-August, the Rays have been flying under the radar as one of the hotter teams in baseball. They have won 13 of their last 15 games, including an eight-game win streak that featured a sweep of Boston who is the best team in baseball this season and the current four-game win streak they are riding at the moment. When they began their eight-game win streak on August 19th with a win against the Red Sox, Tampa Bay sat 12 games back in the wild card race which means they have made up five games in a little over two weeks.
With about three and a half weeks left in the season, the Rays still have time to catch up to Oakland in wild card standings. While it is unlikely they will be able to sustain their current level of play over the course of that time, it is certainly always a possibility. Teams that win games in September are the ones that end up making the playoffs, the ones that crack under the pressure of winning high leverage games at the end of the season are the ones that find themselves sitting at home come October.
Winning Games Despite Pitching Injuries and Trades
Let's be clear, this Tampa Bay Rays team was not expected to be above .500 heading into the early part of September. This was a team that was thought to be in a full-blown rebuild heading into the 2018 season. They were using a four-man starting rotation of Chris Archer, Nathan Eovaldi, Blake Snell, and Jake Faria to start the year and then traded both Archer and Eovaldi at the trade deadline. They were starting relief pitchers like Sergio Romo, Ryne Stanek, and Hunter Wood in games due to injuries to their regular starters.
In fact, briefly after the trade deadline, the Rays had no starters listed on their depth chart since injuries to Jake Faria and Blake Snell placed them on the disabled list. Later on, Tyler Glasnow who was acquired in the Archer deal was added to the rotation as the lone starter, Snell and Faria returned a day later from their injuries to join the rotation. However, injury troubles all season for the pitching rotation have warranted the Rays to have numerous bullpen games to make it through games this season.
The Youth Movement
Nothing about this Rays team at the beginning of the season would give fans the idea of them being in the playoff hunt still. The pitching side of things has been shaken up this season with closer Alex Colome being traded to the Mariners, Chris Archer to the Pirates, and Nathan Eovaldi to the Red Sox. Those are two starters that can make an impact in the games they start and a reliever that has proven he can lock down games.
As for the offensive side of the ball, the outfield has stayed pretty much the same outside of Denard Span being traded away to Seattle and the addition of Tommy Pham at the deadline. But the infield has been shaken up a bit as catcher Wilson Ramos was traded to Philadelphia, top prospects Jake Bauers and Willy Adames got called up, Adeiny Hechavarria just got moved to the Yankees, Daniel Robertson landed on the disabled list, and Brad Miller was traded to the Mariners. Things have changed a lot offensively since Opening Day for the Rays, but they continue to win games with these young players inserted into the starting lineup. For some of them, this is their first time taking over a big role and they are taking it in stride.
The Road Ahead...
For Tampa Bay, the road ahead is tough seeing they have to make up seven games on the Oakland Athletics if they want to qualify for a wild card spot this year. Before setting their sights on Oakland, they will have to pass the Seattle Mariners who they trail by 1.5 games in the wild card standings. However, the ultimate goal would be to past Oakland and even if they cannot do that, they have exceeded expectations this season.
Seeing the Rays are just six wins away from finishing at least .500 in a "rebuilding" season, they have already overachieved this season and are setting themselves up for a chance at a playoff appearance in 2019. This was a Tampa Bay team that went 80-82 last season and was expected to take another step back this year given their offseason moves, but instead, they have taken a step forward. Their young talent is beginning to blossom and the future is certainly bright for this Rays team if their youth continues to develop the way it has this season. Playoff push or not, the Tampa Bay Rays have shown heart and development through everything they have dealt with this year.
If You Still Want to Believe...
The Rays still have plenty of time to pull off a playoff push, but not much margin for error seeing they trail Oakland by seven games at the moment. Here is the Rays and Athletics remaining schedules:
Tampa Bay Rays: 1 @ TOR, 3 vs. BAL, 3 vs. CLE, 3 vs. OAK, 3 @ TEX, 4 @ TOR, 4 vs. NYY, 3 vs. TOR (24 Games: 16 Home, 8 Away)
Oakland Athletics: 1 vs. NYY, 3 vs. TEX, 3 @ BAL, 3 @ TB, 3 vs. LAA, 3 vs. MIN, 3 @ SEA, 3 @ LAA (22 Games: 10 Home, 12 Away)
The series that stands out the most is the three-game series that Tampa Bay will have against Oakland next weekend at home. That series could very well make or break their potential playoff push in September. Additionally, a heavy home schedule the rest of the month could be a difference maker for the Rays as they are 41-24 at home as opposed to 34-39 on the road. Certainly, the Tampa Bay Rays cannot be counted out yet, if they trimmed Oakland's wild card lead down to four or five games headed into the series against them, things could get interesting.
This would mean the Rays have to make up at least two games over the course of the next week to get within five games prior to the home series against Oakland. A sweep in that series would then set them just two games back of the Athletics with Tampa Bay having 14 games remaining on their schedule while Oakland will have just 12. Whatever happens over the final weeks of the season does not change the surprising success for the Rays, but like the great Yogi Berra once said, "It ain't over till its over."
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