With their loss to the White Sox last night, the Tampa Bay Rays highlighted exactly how difficult their road to the postseason has been over the last few weeks. Their eight-game win streak had brought them within a mere two games of a playoff spot -- giving them a 22% chance of making the playoffs, according to BPro -- but one ill-timed loss has put the Rays back in a bind.
With the A's, Orioles, and Angels winning last night, the Rays are now three games back from the second Wild Card spot, and they are four games back from the Orioles with a mere five games to play. They no longer "control their own destiny", as even if they were to win their remaining five games, they would still have to hope for the Orioles to lose at least one of their next two games as well.
Hope is far from lost -- the Rays aren't eliminated yet, after all -- but they have run out of any room for error. One more loss could be the final nail in the coffin for their season, so they need to be perfect from here on out. And unfortunately, if the Rays want to get back in the win column today, they face the tough task of beating Chris Sale.
Sale is a deceptively simple pitcher, featuring four main pitches: a four-seam fastball, two-seam fastball, slider, and change-up. He throws his four-seamer hard, but he's not a straight flamethrower like David Price or Matt Moore; his average fastball sits around 93.5 MPH -- good for 67th in the majors this year -- while Price and Moore averages around 95 MPH. He's also not a change-up artist, as his change-up is above average, but not quite on the same level as what James Shields and Jeremy Hellickson throw.
Instead, Sale dominates for two main reasons: his entire arsenal is above average, and his slider is absolutely nasty.
Hat tip to Ben Duronio from FanGraphs for the GIF.
Sale is essentially a two-pitch pitcher against left-handed hitters, relying predominantly on his four-seam fastball and slider. His slider is slow, sitting around 80 MPH, so the difference in velocity from his four-seamer -- combined with its movement and Sale's side-arm release point -- makes it a difficult pitch to hit. Sale has torn lefties to shreds this season to the tune of a 27% strikeout rate and a 3% walk rate, so don't expect to see either Carlos Pena or Luke Scott in today's starting lineup.
Meanwhile, against right-handed hitters, Sale becomes more egalitarian. He throws all four of his pitches around 20-30% of the time, and he's very difficult to predict when the count is even. If he gets behind in the count, though, he leans slightly more heavily on his fastballs and changeup, and if he gets ahead in the count or gets to two strikes, Sale relies heavily on his slider.
No matter how Joe Maddon stacks his lineup today, this is going to be a difficult match-up for the Rays. They will need to stack their order with as many right-handed bats as possible, so I'd expect to see Ryan Roberts, Sean Rodriguez, and Jeff Keppinger getting playing time in favor of Matt Joyce, Carlos Pena, or Luke Scott.
Will Matt Moore be able to overcome his recent struggles? Will the Rays be able to hit Chris Sale? Will the White Sox keep their playoff hopes alive, or will the Rays? This game is absolutely loaded with drama, storylines, and playoff ramifications, so don't miss out.