The wild-card race is far from over in the American League with a month left in the regular season. Six games still remain between the Red Sox and Rays, and the first three will be played this week at the Trop.
R.J. Anderson of DRaysBay and Cork Gaines of Rays Index joined us to answer a few questions about the Rays, as they try to make up ground and keep their postseason dreams alive.
NESN.com:Scott Kazmir was viewed as the staple of the rotation but now that he is with the Angels, what is feeling in Tampa Bay about Kazmir. Did the Rays make the right move by moving him?
R.J. Anderson: I think they did. You're talking about a guy with an extended injury history, downed velocity, and lost stuff. His last two years have profiled as an average starting pitcher and unless the Angels have a magic wand, then the strikeout king Kazmir isn't coming back. The Rays cant take that risk for $20-plus million, the Angels can. Plus, given the early reports on the return, I think its fair to say the Rays got at least market value for him.
Cork Gaines: Trading Kazmir was undoubtedly the right move. The Rays needed to trim next year's payroll and moving Kazmir will go a long ways towards keeping the rest of core in place. On top of that, Kazmir seemed to just stop developing and there are pitchers in the minors that can replace his production at a fraction of the cost. The problem with the deal is the timing. At worst, the Rays traded a starting pitcher that was pitching well recently and will replace him with something less, in the middle of the pennant race. At best, it just looks bad. For a team that is struggling to build a fanbase, it is not a good idea to make a move that looks like a salary dump when the team is still in the hunt.
NESN.com: The Rays are out of the division race but are very much in play for the wild card. With six games against the Red Sox, the Rays can make up ground without worrying about any other team. If the Rays miss out on the postseason, what will be the reason there is no October baseball in Tampa Bay?
R.J. Anderson: Random variation. The Rays have one of the better offenses in the league but sometimes they go through spells where they wont score three-plus runs a night. That's not on the talent or consistency of the players, its just bad luck. Honestly I don't think the playoffs are going to happen this year, but I would love to be proven wrong.
Cork Gaines: There are a lot of young players on this team and young players are prone to inconsistencies. Last year, I think the young bats leaned on players like Eric Hinske and Cliff Floyd. This year's team doesn't have that veteran presence to keep the young eyes on the prize. Also, the arms just look tired. Several had career highs in innings pitched last year coupled with a short off-season. Look at James Shields and Matt Garza, the Rays top two starters. Their numbers are comparable to last year, but we haven't seen any dominating performances like we did last year. In 2008, those two combined for six complete games and three shutouts. This year they have none.
NESN.com: The Red Sox are just 2-14 in their last 16 games at the Trop. What has made the Trop such a tough place to play for the Red Sox?
R.J. Anderson: The Trop limits right-handed power, which hurts Dustin Pedroia, Jason Bay, and Kevin Youkilis. Plus its the curse of Gerald Williams. Blame Pedro.
Cork Gaines: The Trop has gotten a bad wrap, but when the crowds are big, there is a distinct home-field advantage. Last fall reminded me a lot of the Metrodome in the 80s and 90s. Whether it is the light-colored dome, the in-play catwalks, the turf or even those annoying cowbells, the Rays are used to those factors and the Sox are not. And while many of us loathe the cowbells, we love it when opposing players complain about them.
NESN.com: Evan Longoria has 91 RBIs, Carlos Pena has 38 home runs, Carl Crawford has 55 steals and Jason Bartlett is hitting .340 and Ben Zobrist has a .403 on-base percentage. Who has been the team's MVP this season?
R.J. Anderson: Ben Zobrist. I guess you could make the case for Evan Longoria or Carl Crawford too though. Zobrist has been mighty fine with the bat and glove, and he plays a more difficult position than corner outfield or first base.
Cork Gaines: If you asked five different Rays fans, you would probably get eight different answers. But my money is on Ben Zobrist. He has started a game at six different positions and really kept this team afloat in the middle of the year.
NESN.com: Andy Sonnanstine is back with the Rays after some time in the minors, and he is being put into a tough spot with the Rays' playoff hopes on the line. What do you expect out of Sonnanstine down the stretch?
R.J. Anderson: Probably a league average performance. The big problems his first go around were an inflated home run ratio and more balls/walks than his type can sustain. Those problems look to be behind him, so hopefully he returns to 2008 form.
Cork Gaines: Yeah, the Red Sox shuffled their rotation to get their best pitchers against the Rays. The Rays shuffled their rotation to include Andy Sonnanstine and not James Shields. Good times. Sonny may move to the bullpen after one or two starts. Wade Davis, one of the top prospects in baseball is waiting in the wings, I just don't think management wanted his big league debut against the Red Sox.
NESN.com: What are the keys for the Rays to winning the series against the Red Sox?
R.J. Anderson: I suppose the most important one is playing better than the Red Sox in each game.
Cork Gaines: 7+1+1. In other words, the starters need to go seven innings each night and let Joe Maddon play matchups in the eighth and hope "The Dude" (J.P. Howell) abides in the ninth. If that happens, there will be plenty of offense to win two or three games.
Stay tuned Friday for a preview of the White Sox, as the Red Sox head to the Windy City for the only time this season.