Nobody wants to win the American League wild card. At least, that's what it feels like. There are six teams within five games of the second wild card spot, including the Detroit Tigers and Tampa Bay Rays. However, many of the fanbases of teams in contention have all but resigned their fate for 2015. Tigers fans have debated the merits of buying or selling at the trade deadline for the past month, and while the team has indicated they will buy, it's anyone's guess whether last night's 11-1 drubbing in Boston changed the minds that matter.
Tied with the Tigers are the Tampa Bay Rays, who own a 49-51 record after their first 100 games. Picked by almost no one to win the AL East in 2015, the Rays shocked the world by jumping out to a division lead that lasted as late as June 30. A massive rash of injuries have taken their toll, however, and the Rays have slumped to a 7-14 record in July.
While some of their team is starting to get healthy, they are still missing several key players that could turn the tide in a wild card race. Alex Cobb underwent Tommy John surgery in May, while Matt Moore is still working his way back from the same procedure. Old friend Drew Smyly has been out since early May with a shoulder labrum injury. Outfielder Desmond Jennings hasn't been missed as much as the starting pitchers, but he too has been on the disabled list for an extended period due to knee bursitis. A number of smaller ailments have afflicted the Rays as well, including... well, here, just read this list.
There is still hope for these teams, though their respective fanbases might not admit it. The Minnesota Twins are just 22-27 since June 1, and have stumbled to a 3-6 record out of the All-Star break. The race has been a battle of mediocrity so far, and all it takes is the right hot streak to leap into contention. A sweep either way would go a long way in jumpstarting that team towards a possible wild card berth, but even taking two of three could get the ball rolling.
SB Nation blog: DRaysBay
Game One: Monday, 7:10 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit
Pitching Matchup: RHP Anibal Sanchez (10-7, 4.59 ERA) vs. RHP Nathan Karns (5-5, 3.47 ERA)
Nate Karns wasn't expected to begin the season in the Rays' rotation, but injuries have forced him into a prominent role. Thankfully for Tampa, Karns has responded. His 19 starts are second on the team only to Chris Archer, and he is one of three Rays starters with an ERA+ above 110. Karns' 3.54 ERA is a bit surprising, but a 2.58 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 3.70 FIP indicate that his solid numbers are fairly sustainable. His sharp stuff -- a 93-94 mile-per-hour fastball and a biting curveball in the low 80s -- supports the almost-batter-per-inning strikeout rate he has maintained throughout the season.
Karns is a rare player, in that he was drafted out of college two rounds later than when he was selected three year earlier coming out of high school. A 12th round pick by the Washington Nationals in 2009, Karns put up solid numbers in the minor leagues before he was traded to the Rays in 2014. Karns has harnessed his command somewhat this year following some truly wild seasons in the minors. He is allowing a passable 8.7 percent walk rate, but leads the majors with 12 wild pitches.
Game Two: Tuesday, 7:10 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit
Pitching Matchup: LHP David Price (9-3, 2.31 ERA) vs. RHP Jake Odorizzi (5-6, 2.85 ERA)
Wil Myers may have been the centerpiece to the controversial trade that sent James Shields and Wade Davis to the Kansas City Royals, but Jake Odorizzi may end up being the more valuable player in the deal. Odorizzi's 4.2 WAR in a Rays uniform already outpaces Myers' 2.5, and the 25-year-old righthander is showing no signs of slowing down. Odorizzi has allowed a 2.85 ERA and 3.32 FIP in 91 2/3 innings this season, though he has struggled a bit since coming back from an oblique strain.
While his ERA has gone unaffected, Odorizzi isn't as potent of a pitcher as he was in 2014. His strikeout rate has dropped substantially, but he has coupled that with declines in his walk and home run rates. He is actually throwing his fastball slightly harder than last season, but has not used it as often. Instead, Odorizzi is relying more on his cutter, a pair of pitches that opponents are hitting just .215 against. The splitter is particularly deadly, inducing whiffs at a 17.3 percent clip.
Game Three: Wednesday, 12:10 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit
Pitching Matchup: RHP Justin Verlander (0-3, 5.57 ERA) vs. RHP Chris Archer (9-7, 2.67 ERA)
A lot of people expected Chris Archer to be good. Many people even expected Chris Archer to be this good. However, few people expected Chris Archer to be this good this soon. The 26-year-old righthander is enjoying a monster breakout season, with a 2.67 ERA and 2.62 FIP in 134 2/3 innings. Archer is striking out anyone and everyone, with a 30.3 percent strikeout rate that trails only Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale. Even some guy named Max Scherzer (30.0 percent) is behind Archer at this point.
More important than the strikeouts, however, is the huge drop in walk rate. Archer issued free passes to 8.8 percent of the batters he faced in 2014, but has lowered his walk rate to just 6.2 percent in 2015. His 4.91 strikeout-to-walk ratio ranks 14th among qualified MLB starters, just behind Detroit's David Price. Opponents are hitting .210 against Archer, and his .576 OPS allowed is the third-lowest in the American League among qualified starters. His slider ranks among the best pitches in baseball according to Fangraphs' pitch values, trailing only Dallas Keuchel and Sonny Gray in the American League.
Hitter to fear: Logan Forsythe (.283/.369/.443 in 385 plate appearances)
Hitter to fail: Rene Rivera (.176/.210/.289 in 255 plate appearances)
The Rays have struggled to score this season, plating just 351 runs in their 100 games. This puts them second-to-last in the American League, just ahead of the hapless Chicago White Sox. The Rays rank among the dregs of the AL in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging average, but get a slight bump from wRC+ thanks to the cavernous confines of Tropicana Field. One of the big reasons for this, aside from all the injuries, is the subpar season the Rays are getting from Evan Longoria. Batting just .265/.333/.408 with 10 home runs, the Rays need more from their superstar. Upstarts Joey Butler and Logan Forsythe have helped, but disappointing years from Steven Souza Jr., James Loney, and Asdrubal Cabrera have also contributed to the offensive woes.
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