- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
The simple fact is that right now, the Rays are a better team than Boston, and it's really not even close. This is Tampa Bay's rotation: James Shields, tonight's starter, who is probably running a strong third in the race for the Cy Young Award; David Price, who can be as good as any pitcher on a given day; Jeremy Hellickson, who has the second-lowest ERA in the AL in the second half of the season, behind Ervin Santana; and Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann, who are strong and healthy and have combined for 300 innings.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox front office and coaching staff has been scrambling for pitching, stacking up arms like sandbags against a flood of runs. Six of the seven pitchers who worked for Boston on Thursday night were not with the team at the outset of the season.
As old pal Jayson Stark has noted, the Red Sox have two quality starts in the first half of September, and the Rays have 10. With Boston's lead over Tampa Bay reduced to three games after the Rays' 9-2 victory over the Sox on Thursday, all that stands between the Red Sox and full-blown fan panic tonight is Josh Beckett. The ace hasn't pitched in 10 days and will be taking the mound with some sort of wrap or brace on his injured ankle.
Boston's lead over the Rays was 11 games on Aug. 7, and now it's possible that by Monday morning the Red Sox could be in a tie that will have everybody in New England recalling '49 and '74 and '78. If not for the championships of 2004 and 2007, the Red Sox might be convinced that the crazy broken-bat play that was pivotal in the Rays' first rally Thursday was the latest sign that the baseball gods are angry at the Red Sox.
But it's worth remembering this, in the frantic hours of emotional bridge-jumping: One victory in the next three games for the Red Sox will change the equation dramatically. One victory will mean that Boston -- which was the best team in the majors for a lot of the summer -- will go into the final 10 days of the season with a two-game lead. And the final 10 days won't be kind to the Rays, who have to play the Yankees in seven of their final 10 games, with the other three coming against the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Red Sox, on the other hand, have two series against Baltimore wrapped around a three-game series versus the Yankees. It may feel like Boston's collapse is inevitable, in watching its games, but a three-game lead with two weeks to play is an enormous advantage.
Beckett's on the mound, and the Red Sox are counting on him for an emotional lift, writes John Tomase.
Hellickson showed some emotion, writes Marc Topkin.
NL wild card: Time is running out for the Cardinals, who are 4.5 games out with 13 games to play, and St. Louis starts a series in Philadelphia, as Derrick Goold writes.
If the Angels were to somehow make the playoffs, their starting pitching would make them dangerous, writes Mike DiGiovanna.
AL No. 1 seed: The Tigers' winning streak came to an end, and now maybe manager Jim Leyland can change his underwear, writes Drew Sharp. Even on a night when Detroit lost, its magic number was reduced to one.
Personally, I don't think what Fielder said, or when he said it, is that big of a deal. Everybody knows he's going to test the market, and everybody knows the Brewers will be greatly challenged in attempting to keep the slugger.
But Rodriguez's comments were not well-chosen. One executive mused, "From the outside looking in, he had handled that shift in roles. But now everybody is going to think he is a me-first guy, totally selfish. Why would you say those things right now?"
Right now, the Brewers are on the verge of making the playoffs, and right now, John Axford is one of the best closers in baseball. If you were a club executive thinking about making a three-year offer to Rodriguez, you might be gambling that he remains effective through the duration of the contract -- and right now, you're wondering if he would become a pain in the rear if he doesn't get exactly what he wants. K-Rod will become a free agent in less than two months, and his words probably did some damage to his leverage.
Doug Melvin doesn't think the Brewers will be affected by what was said.
Moves, deals and decisions
1. Everything that Ozzie Guillen says these days seems designed to aid in his exit from the White Sox, and he told reporters on Thursday that Kenny Williams deserves to keep his job. Translated: Let me go, since you're going to keep him.
For his part, Kenny Williams tells Rick Morrissey he can work with Ozzie, and that the fate of the manager is in the hands of Jerry Reinsdorf.
Rampant problems throughout the White Sox organization will be difficult to fix, writes Mark Gonzales.
Look, no matter how it's resolved, somebody please make it stop.
2. Ozzie Guillen is not ready to retire.
Dings and dents
1. The Phillies never lose -- they swept a doubleheader on Thursday -- and it seems fairly clear at this point that the Cy Young Award is going to be placed in some corner of the Philadelphia clubhouse -- in the locker of either Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee. The left-hander dominated the Marlins on Thursday; from ESPN Stats & Information, how this happened:
A) Lee recorded 35 called strikes, the most by any starter in a game this season, and Lee's second-most in the last three seasons. Twenty of Lee's 35 called strikes came on pitches at the belt, as he worked each side of the plate. Oddly enough, however, seven of those 20 came on pitches middle/middle, or over the heart of the plate. Marlins hitters swung at only seven of Lee's 14 pitches over the middle of the plate. Only one opponent (the Marlins back in June) has swung less often in that spot against Lee in the last three seasons.
B) Lee pounded the zone with his fastball. He threw a season-high 46 of his 58 fastballs (79.3 percent) for strikes, including 41 that were in the strike zone.
C) Sixty-four percent of the time the Marlins took a fastball against Lee it was called a strike. That's the highest rate against Lee in the last three seasons.
D) Lee got ahead and stayed ahead: Lee started 23 of 32 hitters (71.9 percent) with a first-pitch strike. Lee went to a 1-1 count nine times. In each of those nine plate appearances, he threw a strike that either retired the hitter or took the count to 1-2. He went to just two three-ball counts and took 22 hitters to a two-strike count, tied for his second-most two-strike counts in a start this season.
From Elias: Lee, who was not involved in the decision in the Phillies' 10-inning victory, has allowed only four earned runs in 64.2 innings over his last eight starts. His 0.56 ERA during that stretch is the lowest ever by a Phillies pitcher over any eight-start span in one season, and the lowest by a pitcher on any team since 2002, when Pedro Martinez had an 0.47 ERA for the Red Sox over eight starts from July 1 through Aug. 10.
Lee finished with 12 strikeouts, his ninth 10-K game of the season (leads majors). He had nine in his entire career entering this season.
2. The White Sox were eliminated.
3. The Royals' strong play has been one of the better baseball stories of late, and they buried the White Sox.
4. The Cubs didn't quit, but they lost, writes Fred Mitchell.
5. The Marlins lost twice.
7. The Mets got hammered and Terry Collins had something to say about it.
8. The Nationals are finishing well -- that's five straight wins and counting.
The Patience Index
Buster Olney writes that the Rays are simply a better team than the Red Sox right now -- and it's not even close. But the reality for Boston is that even one win over Tampa in this series could be enough to build a comfortable lead in the wild-card race.