However, the Rays have been doing extremely well as of late, and are sending three great pitchers in David Price, Matt Garza and James Shields to the mound this weekend to face off against Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and John Lackey, respectively.
The Rays just saw their four-game win streak snapped by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t raring to go against the Red Sox. They understand the magnitude of this series and certainly don’t want to shrink their wild card and AL East lead over the boys from Boston.
Tampa posts one of the strongest records in baseball both at home and on the road, so what the Red Sox need to do in this series is try and capitalize on some of their weak links. There aren’t many, but if the Sox can find them, they’ll be able to regain some ground on the red-hot Rays.
Jason Collette from DockoftheRays.com gave NESN.com the inside scoop on some of the Rays’ hottest topics as of late.
NESN.com: What is the Rays’ weakest link? Could they benefit by adding a fresh face down the stretch?
Jason Collette: The weakest link on the team at this moment is the designated hitter spot. While the Red Sox have enjoyed David Ortiz this season, the Rays have utilized Pat Burrell, Hank Blalock, Willy Aybar, and Dan Johnson at DH this season and have received little production in return from that collective group as they have a combined slash line of just .238/.314/.370 this season. The club is clearly interested in adding Manny Ramirez through waivers if he falls down to them, but that seems highly unlikely. I would also expect them to look at Brad Hawpe once he clears waivers in Colorado and believe he would be an upgrade to the current situation. The ironic part here is if the Rays should make the playoffs and go all the way to the World Series as they did in 2008, they would only need to worry about that spot in the lineup three times as opposed to four.
NESN: The Rays are running neck and neck with the Yankees for first place in the AL East and the best record in baseball. What’s the secret behind Tampa Bay’s end-of-the-month surge, compared to the team’s struggles (five-game losing streak) in the first week of August?
JC: The club’s recent hot streak was a combination of a few things, but it should mostly be credited to the return of a healthy Carlos Pena into the lineup. Without his bat in the lineup, it allowed teams to pitch around Evan Longoria and challenge the other players on the team to produce which they failed to do on a consistent basis. Pena’s batting average on the season may be suffering, but his OPS over the past month is better than Mark Teixeira‘s. Additionally, adding Jeremy Hellickson when they did was a huge lift to the team because he gave the team four quality starts and allowed Joe Maddon to rest the bullpen which had been overworked a bit during that little losing streak. The injuries to Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann were somewhat of a blessing as it allowed those two young arms some rest they might not otherwise have received keeping them fresher for the stretch run while allowing the Rays to see if their top pitching prospect could be counted on in September and possibly the post-season.
NESN: Evan Longoria went through a tough offensive slump in June and July, but has regained his swagger in August, and was just named the MLB Co-Player of the Week. Have you seen any changes in his plate approach to account for the turnaround?
JC: Longoria has developed certain trends in his brief major league career. Throughout the first two months of a season, he is one of the hottest hitters in baseball. He tends to come down to earth during the summer months but always closest out the season with strong Septembers. 2010 has been no different as batting average by month has been .341, .309, .235, .284, and .302 so far in August. When Pena went out, teams were clearly pitching around Longoria has his walk rate jumped up several percentage points compared to the first half of the season as teams worked him away, away, and away forcing him to go the other way with the ball. Longoria has a lot of raw power but he rarely hits home runs to the opposite field so teams were intent on letting him hit singles or doubles the other way rather than challenging him on the inner half of the plate which is his hot zone.
NESN: The Rays have almost identical records at home and on the road. What is the reason for that?
JC: The Rays’ success on the road in 2010 is the biggest surprise to those of us that follow the team closely because they have not been a very good road team throughout the history of this franchise. In fact, there was a twenty-win disparity between their home and road win totals in 2009 which was the worst in baseball and back in 2008, the club was one game under .500 on the road. The club could point to last year’s struggles on the road as the main reason why they were never serious wild card contenders and it was mentioned several times during Spring Training in Port Charlotte that taking care of business on the road would be a point of emphasis in 2010. Ironically, the Rays were only 20-19 at home at one point this season but have won 19 of their last 24 games at home and have not lost a home series since the Red Sox swept the Rays back near the end of May.
NESN: Talk about the significance of closer Rafael Soriano to the bullpen this season. What will the Rays front office have to do during the offseason to keep their consistent closer in Tampa?
JC: Rafael Soriano has been everything he was advertised to be, and then some. Throughout spans in seasons, Rays fans have seen dominant stretches from closers such as Roberto Hernandez, Al Reyes, J.P. Howell, and even Troy Percival but none of them have been able to demonstrate the sustained dominance that Soriano has done this season. It took Soriano until mid July to blow his first save on the season when that was something that would happen at least once a month to a Tampa Bay closer in past seasons. Last season, Howell was at this level for a time during the summer until he wore down and his season ended early but that was not under the type of pressure Soriano faces this season as the closer for a legitimate playoff contender. Realistically, there is little chance Soriano comes back to the Rays in 2011 to continue his work.
The ownership has already said that payroll is likely to come back down closer to $50 million in 2011 and Soriano’s performance has essentially priced him out of this market for next season. The club has internal options for the role next season which include Grant Balfour, bringing back Joaquin Benoit, or a long-shot, rookie Jacob McGee. This is not much different from the decision the Red Sox faced this past season with Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard; do they pay the proven veteran a significant amount of money to do what he has always done or entrust the job to a less expensive alternative and spend the savings elsewhere? Knowing this franchise, the latter situation is the most likely course of action.
Thanks once again to Jason Collette from DockoftheRays for contributing to this piece.