The Tampa Bay Rays, stuck in the American League East with big-market behemoths Boston and New York, are often overlooked and chronically underrated by the supposed baseball cognoscenti.
Even their own fans don’t pay them much mind, probably because they play at Tropicana Field, a ballpark that has the gloomy aesthetic of a mini-golf course abandoned in 1999.
The Rays are averaging a little above 13,000 fans per game this season. It’s tempting to suggest they pack up and move to Montreal, but the Marlins (average attendance: 9,478) should probably beat them to that forgotten excellent baseball city north of the border. Besides, the Montreal Rays would make about as much sense as the Utah Jazz. At least the Montreal Marlins would be alliterative.
While Tampa Bay remains an irrelevant baseball market, their baseball team is extremely relevant in the standings. The Rays (38-23) are just a half-game back of the Yankees in the AL East standings and six games up on the Red Sox (33-30, a game behind the Rangers in the loss column for the second wild card) after a mostly suspense-free 5-1 win over the Red Sox at Fenway Park on Friday night.
The Red Sox did not manage a base runner or a hit against Rays starter Yonny Chirinos and his power-drill sinkerball until the sixth inning. They did not score until the ninth, when Xander Bogaerts’s RBI double made it 5-1. No, the Red Sox should not have required a reminder of the Rays’ competence — and frequent excellence — but they got a harsh one anyway.
With a doubleheader looming Saturday, another reminder is necessary. If the Red Sox, after that wretched start to the season, are going to convince us that they truly have found their way and intend to be relevant in October, they might want to start consistently beating some teams that have thus far proven superior to them this season.
The Red Sox came into Friday’s game with a four-game winning streak, tying a season-high. After a 6-13 start, they’re 27-17. That’s a 99-win pace. But in that same span, which began with a three-game sweep at Tampa Bay April 19-21, they’re 3-6 against the division-leading Astros and Yankees (and 3-8 overall this season), and 3-3 against the Rays. They are 0-3 against the Rays at home this season.
And the Sox haven’t even dealt with the best team in baseball yet. Rocco Baldelli’s homer-bingeing Minnesota Twins, who have run away with the AL Central with a 41-20 record, will host the Red Sox for their first series of the season June 17-19.
Every opponent can’t be the Royals, whom the Red Sox swept in a three-game series earlier this week. The Rays may not seem to have much star power (though .345-hitting Austin Meadows is on his way), and they had been struggling lately, having lost 4 of 6. But they did allow just one run over the previous two games. That both foreshadowed the mastery that was to come from Chirinos, who needed just 50 pitches to navigate his perfect first five innings, and it also told the story of why these Rays win so often.
Their pitching has been downright extraordinary. The Rays entered Friday’s game with a 2.99 ERA as a staff. Since 1991, only last year’s Astros and the 2014 Athletics had a sub-3.00 ERA through 60 games. The last team to do it over a full season was the 1981 Yankees, and that year was abbreviated by a strike. The last team to do it over the full 162? The 1974 Oakland Athletics of Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, and Rollie Fingers.
The Red Sox had reason to believe they could crack Chirinos and the Rays’ superb pitching. They were retuning from a six-game road trip in which they won the last four games, scoring seven or more runs in each. The Red Sox came in averaging 5.45 runs per game, trailing only the Twins and Rangers. Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Rafael Devers were 1-2-3 in the AL in runs scored.
And yet their only real chance to do some damage came in the sixth inning, when they were already down, 4-0. Brock Holt walked for the first base runner. Jackie Bradley Jr. followed with a liner into the hole at shortstop for the first hit. After pinch-hitter Christian Vazquez flew out, Mookie Betts loaded the bases with a walk. Chirinos, following a mound visit, whiffed Andrew Benintendi on a check swing for the second out.
With a chance to cut into the lead and perhaps erase it with one swing, the Red Sox had the hitter they wanted at the plate in Devers, the AL player of the month for May who was hitting .344 with 37 RBIs in his previous 36 games. But Chirinos won the battle, striking out Devers swinging on a wicked 87-miles-per-hour splitter.
“We haven’t been good with men in scoring position for a while, we haven’t been good with bases loaded in the last month,’’ lamented Red Sox manager Alex Cora afterward. “I know the numbers look great and very similar to last year, but it doesn’t feel the same.’’
And neither is their standing in the AL East. A year after winning 108 games and the fourth World Series since 2004, the Red Sox are looking up at not just those resilient Yankees, but the Rays as well.
The Red Sox have a fine opportunity with Saturday’s doubleheader to make up some ground. But convincing yourself that they’ll actually seize it doesn’t come easy. Especially if you’ve learned to give the Rays the respect they’ve earned.