According to Jayson Stark, no team in MLB history has made the playoffs after being down more than 7.5 games to start September. The Rays were 9.5 back from the Red Sox on September 1st. Yet after going 7-3 since then, they're now a mere 3.5 games behind the Red Sox -- the closest the Rays have been since the beginning of July. This team is hot, fired up, and blood-thirsty; there will be no September swoon a la 2009.
After winning Saturday night's game in a thrilling walkoff fashion, the Rays wasted no time jumping out to a lead today. They worked Jon Lester hard in the first inning, scoring two runs on three singles and a walk before Lester was even able to get one out. Lester ended up throwing 43 pitches in the first inning while allowing three runs, and his night only improved incrementally from that point on. He was missing over the plate with his pitches, and the Rays had runners in scoring position in each of the first four innings.
Going into the fifth inning, the Rays were in an interesting predicament: they were up 4-1 and had chased Lester from the game, but they had failed to score on a number of opportunities and the Red Sox were only one rally away from being back in the game. Thankfully, that didn't last long. Casey Kotchman walked, Jose Lobaton singled, and Desmond Jennings walked, bringing up B.J. Upton with the bases loaded and two outs.
Expecting a strikeout? Yup, I'll admit it -- I was. But Upton took Matt Albers deeep to left, hitting his 20th homerun of the season and breaking the game wide open. From then on, the rest of the game was academic.
On the pitching side, James Shields was as masterful as we've come to expect, coming just two outs away from working another complete game. The fans wanted him to get it, booing Maddon when he came out to get Shields, but at 121 pitches, there was no need to stress his arm. As it was, Shields only allowed one run through 8.1 innings, escaping from a couple jams along the way. The lone run was off a home run by Marco Scuturo in the third, but thankfully it was only a solo shot.
The Rays have 17 games left and the Red Sox have 16 remaining, but right now, we simply have to be concerned about the next seven games. Starting tomorrow, the Rays play three games against the Orioles, and then go up to Boston for a four-game series next weekend. If the Rays want to make this race serious, they have to play this week like a team possessed. There's no way they can lose this series to the Orioles -- a sweep is almost necessary -- and then they need to take at least 3 of 4 from the Sox. Again, a sweep would be ideal.
If they can do that, then holy crap, we've got a race. Even then, though, the Rays will still have an uphill battle to climb -- they have 7 games left against the Yankees after that, while the Sox play 7 games against the O's -- so this week is absolutely crucial.
But nothing is impossible. This team looks loose, while the Red Sox are slumping and starting to feel some serious pressure. Who says they can't do it? The odds may be stacked against them, but I can't help get pumped for this week.
Who'd have thunk that the Rays would be this close to a playoff spot in mid-September? This has been one dynamite, ridiculous, totally unpredictable seasons. Let the #Magic continue!