The Tampa Bay Rays may hold a four-and-a-half game lead over the Red Sox in the AL wild-card race, but things are not looking up for the team that had the best record in baseball for much of the season.
Following a three-game sweep in Toronto to the Blue Jays over the weekend, the Rays suffered a big blow when two of their starting pitchers — Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis — were placed on the 15-day disabled list with strained shoulders on Monday.
Niemann, who is 10-3 with a 3.12 ERA, is having a breakout season as the Rays? second-best pitcher (behind David Price). Davis hasn?t been as good, but his 9-9 record and 4.45 ERA are perfectly acceptable for a No. 5 starter in the American League.
The two right-handers are part of a Rays starting rotation that boasts the second-best ERA (3.81) in the AL. It?s a rotation that has carried an offense that, despite scoring the third-most runs in the AL, ranks a pedestrian eighth in OPS and 11th in average.
Missing Niemann and Davis for two weeks could mean a few things for the Rays and, consequently, every other team within striking distance of the wild card — namely the Red Sox, White Sox, Twins and Blue Jays.
Tampa Bay has a somewhat favorable schedule ahead, with two games against the fading Detroit Tigers, three against the lowly (but surging) Baltimore Orioles, three at home against the Rangers and four in Oakland against the up-and-down Athletics.
Without Niemann and Davis, a winning record during that span won?t necessarily be easy for the Rays, who at times have had a lot of trouble scoring runs in 2010. If the Rays don?t hit in the two hurlers? absence, it could allow all four wild-card contenders to creep closer in the standings heading into September — where Tampa Bay?s schedule is anything but favorable.
However, losing Niemann and Davis means that highly touted rookie Jeremy Hellickson, who will make his second career start on Tuesday against Detroit, will get some experience down the stretch.
Rays manager Joe Maddon had previously expressed interest in using Hellickson much like he used Price in 2008 during the team?s World Series run, as a valuable arm out of the bullpen. With a couple starts under his belt, Hellickson could gain some much-needed confidence heading into September.
The Rays will clearly miss Niemann and Davis, but their absence won?t necessarily result in a negative for Tampa Bay. When it comes to battling in the AL East, offense is usually the name of the game, anyway.