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First place or not, Rays establishing themselves as team to beat come October

Posted by David D'Onofrio  July 25, 2013 05:49 AM

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Whether or not they leave Boston in first place won't be known until Thursday night, not until they're done dealing with unforeseen ace John Lackey in his effort to help the Red Sox stay where they've been in the standings since May 27. But it doesn't much matter for the Rays.

This is still July, after all. And Tampa Bay is a team built for October.

They've got to get there first, obviously, and that's no given for a club that's currently squeezed between Boston and Baltimore in the East division, and will be keeping an eye on the impact ex-teammate Matt Garza has on the wild-card race after the pitcher was traded to Texas. But if there's a single notion to be gleaned from this ongoing four-game set at Fenway Park, and from a sizzling streak that's now seen them win 18 of 21, it's that the rest of the American League should start rooting for the Red Sox or Orioles to win the East. Because nobody will want to play the Rays in the postseason.

Based on starting pitching alone they're equipped for a series of any length -- be it a best-of-one, -five, or -seven games -- though with Wednesday night's 5-1 win over Boston the Rays continued to make the case that they're as balanced and complete a team as there is on the junior circuit, the sum and the parts both impressive enough to dispel the notion that this recent run is just the product of an easy schedule.

The primary star of their 60th and latest win was David Price, the reigning Cy Young winner who needed only 97 pitches to complete the game and lower his earned run average to 1.76 in five starts since returning from the disabled list. That performance came just a couple days after Matt Moore used a two-hit shutout to become the first AL pitcher to reach 14 wins, as well as a day before Jeremy Hellickson climbs the bump boasting a 2.19 ERA over his last six outings, and though it gave Tampa’s bullpen its second night off this week, the outcome probably wouldn't have been much different even if Joe Maddon had summoned a fresh arm.

Rays relievers allow fewer walks and hits per inning than any other AL corps this season (1.18), and have the league’s best bullpen ERA since the start of June (2.58) -- which is about the same time closer Fernando Rodney got his act together. He’s 15-for-15 in save chances over the past two months.

The Rays are more than merely pitching, however, and not far behind Price on the list of Wednesday’s stars was a Tampa defense that ranks as the AL's second-best in both defensive efficiency and errors committed. The pitcher notched only four strikeouts on the night, but he got 12 outs on ground balls handled deftly by his infielders – most notably including shortstop Yunel Escobar who, a night after snapping his team-record 53-game errorless streak, channeled Pete Maravich in starting one of the prettiest double plays you’ll see this year.

Seriously, it’s worth the interruption:

The Rays aren't just all arms and gloves, either. They can hit, too. Evan Longoria is a legitimate middle-of-the-order threat. Rookie Wil Myers has assimilated himself nicely since his June call-up and has been a thorn in the side of Red Sox pitchers this week. James Loney ranks fifth in the AL in batting. Ben Zobrist is a darn good player. And guys like Matt Joyce, Kelly Johnson and Luke Scott all fill their roles productively.

Add it all together and the Rays are averaging 4.66 runs per game, which ranks fifth in the AL. In aggregate they also have an adjusted OPS of 111, which leaves them in a tie with the Red Sox and two other clubs for highest in the AL -- meaning their offensive attacks are pretty much equal when they're playing in the same ballpark .

Put that among the reasons no team should be looking forward to playing in the same ballpark as the Rays come October.

BEYOND THE BOX SCORE
Rays 5, Red Sox 1
Hitters
5-for-31, 4 K, 2B, HR
Jacoby Ellsbury, CF 0-for-4: Three groundouts and a lazy flyball bring him to 2-for-16 since boosting his average up as high as its been in three months. He's also got just one steal since July 6.
Shane Victorino, RF 2-for-4: All Victorino's infield single earned him was an up-close view as the force out on Escobar's behind-the-back wizardry. He bunted for his second hit -- but, hey, whatever works.
Dustin Pedroia, 2B 0-for-4, K: After he failed to get the ball beyond where the stage was set for his afternoon press conference, the best thing we can say about the way he's going is that a torrid stretch tends to follow his skids. And 2-for-23 since the break counts as one of those.
David Ortiz, DH 1-for-4: Big Papi now ranks third in the AL in batting (.323), OBP (.404), slugging (.597) and, naturally, OPS (1.001). Not a bad answer for those who wondered loudly what a two-year deal would do to his motivation this season.
Mike Napoli, 1B 2-for-4, R, RBI, 2B, HR: His tear continues, as he's now 7-for-15 with five extra-base hits since sitting against Hiroki Kuroda on Saturday. It helps that the Sox have since lefties in three of four games, but take nothing away from the locked-in Napoli.
Jonny Gomes, LF 0-for-3, K: A nondescript night for Gomes, who usually feasts on lefties, but has never done much against Price, and did nothing of note on Wednesday.
Stephen Drew, SS 0-for-3: He's now down to .169 against lefties this season. His at-bats weren't bad Wednesday night, but he wasn't ultimately able to do anything against the lanky southpaw.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C 0-for-3: Entering 1-for-9 with four strikeouts against Price, he didn't want to get deep into counts. Pitch totals per at-bat went two, one, three -- so he didn't K. But he didn't reach, either.
Jose Iglesias, 3B 0-for-3, K: Iglesias has one hit to the outfield in his past 29 ABs, he hasn't pulled the ball for a hit in his past 41 ABs, and he has one extra-base hit in his past 88 ABs.
Pitchers
9 IP, 5 ER, 11 H, 2 BB, 5 K
Felix Doubront, SP 6.2 IP, 6H, 3ER, 2BB, 5K: One bad inning cost him, and while not his best, his effort was good enough to become the first Sox lefty since at least 1920 to allow three earned runs or less in 13 straight starts. Overall, he's done that in 17 of 18 outings this year.
Pedro Beato, RP 0.2 IP, H, ER: Kept an inherited runner from scoring, but yielded a steal and two singles over the course of the three batters he faced. His use in a three-run game may be a small vote of confidence, though.
Matt Thornton, RP 1 IP, 3H, ER: After yielding singles to three of the five hitters he faced, he's now surrendered six hits and two walks in 3.2 innings since his Sox changed from White to Red.
Drake Britton, RP 1 IP, H: Ten batters into his big-league career, Britton has faced guys named Longoria, Zobrist, Myers, Gardner, Suzuki, and Cano. Suzuki and Cano he's faced twice each. So far he's yielded two hits, a walk, and no runs while navigating three full innings on 36 pitches.
This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Dave D'Onofrio is a sports journalist who focuses on the Red Sox and Patriots, and also writes Boston.com's "Off The Field" blog about what Boston's sportsmen do away from the More »

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