It was once expected to perhaps be a crucial meeting with playoff implications, but it's now lost some of that shine after the Red Sox got swept Saturday in a doubleheader with the White Sox. The Red Sox are now 7 1/2 games behind the Rays in the wild card, and with just 25 games to play, the Red Sox are starting to face the harsh reality of playing in the AL East.
While that's bad news in Boston, obviously, it's fantastic news down in Tampa, where the Rays have been consistent since April. They won 17 or more games in every month except June, and they're just 2 1/2 games behind the Yankees for the AL East lead.
The Rays and Yanks may be battling it out until the season ends, but this week, it's the Red Sox and Rays. We asked Cork Gaines of Rays Index a few questions about where the Rays are with less than a month remaining in the regular season.
NESN.com: Who has been the MVP for the Rays this season?
Gaines: If you would have asked me a month ago, the answer would have been Carl Crawford. He played lights out the first four months of the season. But when it came down to crunch time, Evan Longoria has done what all great players do — he has put the team on his back the last month and is leading them back to the postseason. In August, he hit .313 with 18 extra-base hits and 20 RBIs.
Also deserving consideration is the Rays' eighth and ninth inning combo of Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano. Those two are doing for the '10 Rays, what Mo Rivera and John Wetteland did for the '96 Yankees. The offense doesn't need to be great. It just needs to be good enough to have a lead after 7 innings.
NESN.com: A lot was made recently of the low attendance at Tropicana Field. Given that one of the low points came just one day after a big series win over the Red Sox, how did the fans react to the attendance news?
Gaines: What hurts Rays fans is the perception that there are no Rays fans and the few that do exist don't support the team. What is never mentioned by national media outlets is that the Rays are seventh in local television ratings. The Rays don't have a fan base problem; they have a stadium problem. And while I have long defended The Trop as an underrated baseball venue (not great, but not as bad as many believe), it is hard to defend the location. There is a big enough population in the region, but Tampa and St. Pete are not densely populated.
So if the Rays are going to reach the fans, they need a stadium that is more centrally located and one that is not surrounded by water on three sides. Once the stadium situation is resolved, the rest of the country will see what we know. The fans are here, we just need a stadium that is not a pain to get to.
NESN.com: Carl Crawford was one of the players who stated plainly that the lack of attendance that night was disappointing. Do you think that will have any effect on him as a free agent this winter, or has he offered any indications that he'd like to return to the Rays?
Gaines: Well, if Carl Crawford chose his next team based on that team's attendance, he would probable be the first athlete in history to do so. Earlier in the year, Crawford plainly said that he and Carlos Pena would not be back next year. But recently he has toned down the rhetoric and has said that his first hope is to work something out with the Rays.
That being said, I am not sure the Rays want to re-sign Crawford. Not that they wouldn't want him on the 2011 roster — but re-signing Crawford just doesn't fit the Rays' business model. They just aren't going to give anybody $70-100 million. While the Rays certainly recognize that he will be worth every penny in years 2011, 2012 and maybe 2013, it is hard to imagine he will still be a $15 million player in 2014 and beyond. And while teams like the Yankees can afford to overpay aging players, that type of contract would cripple the Rays.
NESN.com: Some fans in Boston have been saying that the season ended on Saturday, Aug. 28, when Clay Buchholz went back out to the mound for the eighth inning. B.J. Upton, of course, greeted him with a game-tying homer, and the Red Sox eventually lost in extras. What were you thinking when you saw Buchholz, and not Daniel Bard, on the mound in the eighth?
Gaines: I actually thought leaving Buchholz in against Upton was the right move. It was the execution that failed. Upton has struggled against right-handers all season, especially against righties with a good fastball. And while he has come to life a bit recently, Buchholz had handled Upton well earlier in the game with fastballs and changeups. The one thing Buccholz couldn't do in that instance was throw B.J. a curveball. Upton will sit on breaking pitches more than any good hitter I have ever seen, and Buhcholz gave Upton what he was looking for. If Buchholz just sticks to the scouting report there, he would have probably been fine.
NESN.com: Red Sox and Rays fans know that winning the wild card is nice, but beating out the Yankees for the division is the best. Are fans hoping the Rays go hard for the division, or is the hope that they'll simply make the playoffs?
Gaines: I posted this exact question to the fans a week ago and was surprised at how badly they want the Rays to win the division and get home-field advantage. While there are pros and cons to facing the Twins or Rangers (the likely first-round matchups), I'd say those two teams are a toss-up. And while the Rays have played well in Replica Yankee Stadium, October is a different monster. That being said, I do think the fans recognize that having the roster, and especially the pitchers, healthy and well-rested is the most important factor. So I think most will be fine when Joe Maddon starts resting his regulars even with the division still on the line. Of course, playing their final 10 games against the O's, M's and Royals may give JoeMa the best of both worlds.
Thanks to Cork Gaines for answering these questions for NESN.com. Check out his blog at RaysIndex.com.