Outside of the Red Sox organization, and perhaps those organizations whose hopes of a playoff berth are still breathing as a result, the person happiest about how the Rays have played over the past six weeks might be Jerry Meals.
He, you might remember, was the umpire who called Daniel Nava out on a close play at the plate in the eighth inning of July 29, thereby denying the Sox the game's tying run -- and who subsequently apologized for getting the call wrong when TV replays made obvious that he'd ruled incorrectly. Had Tampa Bay wound up edging Boston by a game in the American League East, Sox fans would've certainly cited that moment with little regard for the fact that run would've merely tied the game, and blamed Meals' mistake for messing up what might've been.
At this point, though, if the Rays somehow succeed in completing a second for-the-ages comeback in three years, and somehow overcome the 7.5-game gulf that separates the clubs with less than three weeks to play, those fans will blame nobody but the Sox themselves for losing the division. So Meals is essentially off the hook, in part because Boston has gone 24-14 since leaving the field that night at Fenway -- but maybe more so because Tampa has gone just 15-21 over that same stretch.
When they last left Boston, the Rays looked like they might be the team to beat in the American League -- let alone the East -- though since then they've won as many as three games in a row only twice, while enduring four losing streaks of at least that length. That's not supposed to happen for a team with good pitching, and so what's most surprising about this prolonged slump is that Tampa has been let down from the mound, which has historically been the site of its greatest strength, but which has allowed six runs or more once every three games since David Price shut down the Sox on July 29.
In August the Rays' staff was right in the middle of the pack among AL teams in terms of earned run average, its below-average mark of 4.04 ranking eighth, and in September it's actually been worse, at 4.30. The biggest disappointment has come from the starting rotation, which finished August with a 4.24 ERA, and since the start of that month is lugging around a 4.27. Previous to that, Rays starters were basically half a run better, at 3.79.
Tuesday starter David Price (3.35), Wednesday starter Alex Cobb (2.90), and Matt Moore (0.75 in two starts since returning from the DL) have been fine, but the problem has come deeper down the line. Chris Archer has a 4.46 ERA since he was the AL's pitcher of the month for July, Roberto Hernandez's 4.50 cost him his spot in the rotation when Moore came back, and Thursday starter Jeremy Hellickson's ERA of 7.42 is second-worst among qualifying AL starters since Meals made his call in Boston.
In the past the Rays' pitching has been good enough to cover up the deficiencies of its mediocre offense and keep the team winning. But when the pitching fails at the same time the bats are looking particularly impotent, the result is apparently losing 21 of 36.
Tampa scored fewer runs than any AL team in August, scoring only 89 runs in 26 games -- a paltry 3.4 per -- thanks in part to a league-low 217 hits, 66 extra-base hits, and 20 home runs. And they've actually been even less productive since the calendar flipped over to September, averaging 3.1 runs per game, and having scored 41 fewer runs than the Red Sox (66-25) in the same number of contests.
Aside from second baseman Ben Zobrist, catcher Ben Lobaton, and occasionally shortstop Yunel Escobar or first baseman James Loney, there's nobody really performing at a level that inspires confidence they can make a real run at the Red Sox -- and key pieces like Evan Longoria, Desmond Jennings, and Luke Scott have all performed at a level somewhere between below-expectations and brutal, as evidenced in this chart of their numbers since July 30.
Manager Joe Maddon recently tried declaring it "American Legion Week" in hopes of stirring his offense to life, telling the players that they wouldn't be allowed to take batting practice, because he wanted them to just show up and play, like they did back in their Legion days. (They lost six of seven once that idea was introduced, scoring three runs or less in five straight games.)
And the manager also brought in New Hampshire's own Sam Fuld, an outfielder by trade, to pitch at the end of a blowout loss. Maddon said he was hoping to lighten the mood of his club by bringing some comic relief. Maybe it worked, as the Rays won their next two after that -- but subsequently dropped three straight to sub-.500 competition. So maybe it didn't work, after all.
Either way, as the Rays welcome the Red Sox to Tropicana Field on Tuesday night, the three-game series doesn't have quite the sizzle or consequence that many thought it would, even as recently as a couple weeks ago. With two teams headed in opposite directions, the standings aren't nearly as tight now as it looked like they were going to be, so instead it's a bit anticlimactic.
Just as Jerry Meals had to be hoping.
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