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Series Preview: Rays vs Braves

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MLB: Atlanta Braves at Pittsburgh Pirates
We miss you Charlie!
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Tampa Bay Rays look to get back to business after closing out the first half on a run. The Rays won six of their final seven capping off a month of up and down play.

The Rays sit 1.5 games behind the Boston Red Sox in the American League East. The Toronto Blue Jays and New York Yankees trail by 8.0 games while the Baltimore Orioles sit 26.0 games back.

If the season were to end today the Rays would hold the first wild card. They are 2.0 games ahead of the Oakland Athletics and 5.5 games ahead of the Seattle Mariners.

Matchups:

Friday 7:20 PM: Michael Wacha vs Charlie Morton
Saturday 7:20 PM: TBA vs Max Fried
Sunday 1:20 PM: Rich Hill vs Drew Smyly

The TBA on Saturday night is expected to be Josh Fleming getting the bulk work but might be after an opener.

Former Ray Charlie Morton gets the ball tonight. He has posted a 3.64 ERA/3.41 FIP/3.42 xFIP over 99.0 innings. This is a step down from his 2019 season with the Rays but still one of his most productive seasons. His 27.7% strikeout rate is a step up from his 2020 rate but well below his 2017 and 2018 rates. His 8.0% walk rate is average. His four-seam fastball velocity is up to 95.4 mph after falling to 93.4 mph last season. He throws the fastball 35% of the time and matches the rate of 80.2 mph curveball. He will add 94.5 mph sinker roughly 15% and a 87.6 mph cutter he uses around 10% of the time. He will occasionally throw a 86.3 mph changeup. He will throw it to batters of either hand but comes it around 3% of the time.

Max Fried is a big lefty that has had some difficulty keeping runs off the board despite solid peripherals. He has a 4.71 ERA/4.03 FIP/3.93 xFIP over 72.2 innings. His strikeout rate has fallen to 22.8% while he’s kept a relatively steady 7.9% walk rate. Fried’s primary pitch is a 93.8 mph four-seam fastball that he throws just under 40% of the time. He complements the fastball with a 74.8 mph curveball and 85.3 mph slider that he will throw around 25%. He adds a 93.1 mph sinker and will very rarely, around 1%, of the time throw a 85.1 mph changeup to right handed batters.

Drew Smyly is the second former Ray scheduled to make a start this weekend. He has had a disappointing season posting a 4.48 ERA/5.19 FIP/4.89 xFIP. His strikeout rate has fallen to 20.1% alongside a manageable 8.3% walk rate. The big problem has been allowing too many homers. Smyly throws a 92.4 mph four-seam fastball just over 50% of the time. he pairs that with a 78.9 mph curveball that he throws just under 40% of the time. He will sprinkle in a 88.0 mph cutter around 10% of the time.

The Atlanta bullpen has really struggled. They have a 4.58 ERA/4.21 FIP/4.40 xFIP. Their -1.32 WPA puts them solidly in the bottom ten with twelve teams coming in the negatives.

The Braves are without their superstar.

Unfortunately the Braves suffered a major loss when Ronald Acuna Jr. tore his ACL attempting to make a catch last weekend. This is bad news for all baseball fans who want to see one of the best young superstars play. He’s expected to come back sometime next season.

The Braves offense has hit .238/.322/.425 and put up a 100 wRC+. Their 123 homeruns rank fourth in the majors. The offense has scored 4.72 runs per game.

Freddie Freeman is the reigning NL MVP and has put up a strong .274/.381/.489 slash line and 132 wRC+. He’s hit 19 homers.

Austin Riley (123 wRC+) and Ozzie Albies (118 wRC+) are the remaining complementary bats at the top of the lineup.

Guillermo Heredia (105 wRC+) has stepped into a bigger role than expected after being claimed in February by the Braves.

Dansby Swanson (99 wRC+) is a strong shortstop defender that has started to hit.

Pablo Sandoval (97 wRC+) is a pinch hit weapon off the bench.

The Braves aren’t an exceptionally good or bad defensive team. They come in middle of the pack with a +7 DRS, but rank seventh worst with a -7.8 UZR.

72 games remaining.

The Rays have a 53-37 record through their first 90 games and look to finish strong. Over the next couple of weeks there we will get to watch exciting baseball and also get to ponder a host of trade rumors as the Rays look to fortify their team for a push to the playoffs.