A perennial AL East favorite year after year holds the best record in the MLB at the midway point of the season, as well as a double-digit division lead, only to collapse down the stretch and miss the playoffs entirely.
No, I’m not talking about the 2011 Boston Red Sox, I’m talking about the 2012 New York Yankees, who, if they don’t get their act together soon, could wind up putting the finishing touches on the biggest collapse in the franchise’s storied 110-year history.
On July 18, the Yankees’ clubhouse slept soundly at 57-34. On the heels of a 9-2 run, the Bronx Bombers had sole possession of the best record in the league. Furthermore, they held a comfortable 10-game lead over the slumping Baltimore Orioles in the AL East.
Needless to say, Derek Jeter and Co. looked destined to clinch the club’s fourth-straight postseason bid.
Fast-forward to September 9, and the Yankees’ comfortable lead is a thing of the past. Those “slumping Orioles"? More like those “AL East co-leading Orioles.”
It was a fall from grace for the Yankees that had as much to do with their struggles as it did with the suddenly red-hot play of the Orioles.
Since July 18, the Orioles have posted a 31-17 record compared to the Yankees’ mark of 21-27.
To find the last time the Yankees blew a division lead of five games or more you’d have to go all the way back to 1933. That season the Yankees failed to make the postseason after holding a six-game lead over the Washington Senators (now the Minnesota Twins).
Who will win the AL East?
While all the talk surrounds the Yankees and the Orioles, nobody seems to be paying any attention to the club that has a flair for the late-season dramatics—the same club that sealed the fate of the Red Sox last season. What about the Tampa Bay Rays?
Standing 10.5 games back of the division lead on July 18, the Rays were in fourth place and seemed to be a lost cause. Evan Longoria had been out since April with a hamstring injury and several key players were struggling at the plate. The chances that they would be contending at the end of the season were slim to none.
However, that’s the same frame of thought held by critics alike when the Rays trailed the Red Sox by nine games for the AL wild card on September 3 last season. We all saw how that one turned out.
Deciding to make it less suspenseful this go-around, the Rays got it together a lot earlier, posting a 29-17 record since July 18. Now, only two games back in both the divisional and wild-card races, the Rays are back in contention.
But I’ll take it even further.
By the time the remaining 24 games of the season have been played, the Rays will emerge as the AL East champions.
Why do I believe that? It’s simple. Nobody else can match up with the Rays’ pitching staff. Just like defense in football, great pitching wins championships in baseball.
Just take a look at the 12 World Series champions since 2000. All but the 2005 St. Louis Cardinals finished in the top 10 in overall pitching.
That’s music to the ears of the Rays, whose staff currently ranks first with a team ERA of 3.24 and an opponent batting average of .231.
A large portion of the credit for that belongs to ace David Price.
At 17-5 with a 2.54 ERA to match, Price has been dominant to say the least. Both his win total and ERA lead the majors. So it comes as no surprise that the 27-year-old is an early favorite to take home this season’s AL Cy Young.
But every wise manager will tell you that it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.
Enter Fernando Rodney.
In 65 relief appearances, Rodney has recorded 42 saves out of 44 opportunities and boasts an impressive ERA of 0.70. Deservedly so, he’s right behind Price in the AL Cy Young race.
The rest of the bullpen is pretty impressive too.
With a MLB-leading bullpen ERA of 2.75 and an opponent batting average of .205, opponents better hope to get their runs in early. With a lead after seven innings, the Rays are 63-3. Good luck dealing with that.
The same can’t be said about the other two contenders.
At 14th and 17th respectively, the pitching staffs of the Yankees and Orioles don’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of opposing lineups.
To make it worse, both clubs have been dealt blows on the offense as well.
Although they rank third overall in team batting, the Yankees have hit a lowly .207 in their last 10 games. It’s a reasonable explanation as to why the club hasn’t been able to put together a winning streak since August 15. That makes it 22 games without successive victories.
The Orioles, on the other hand, have been beneficiaries of recent hot surges from Adam Jones and Mark Reynolds (eight home runs in his last nine games). However, the club received devastating news following Saturday night’s 5-4 victory over the Yankees.
Leadoff hitter and clubhouse leader, Nick Markakis was forced to leave the game after being hit by a pitch. After the game, it was announced that he would be out for at least six weeks with a broken thumb.
It’s a setback for a team who has already lost two leadoff hitters to season-ending injuries.
With upcoming series against both the Yankees and the Orioles, the Rays are looking to capitalize on their divisional foes’ misfortunes.
After wrapping up their series with the Texas Rangers at home Sunday night, the Rays fly up to Baltimore Tuesday to begin a three-game set. They follow that up with a weekend trip to New York on Friday for another three games.
There’s a good chance that the Rays might come out of next weekend atop the AL East. Now, who would have thought that back in July?
But that’s baseball. It’s all about being hot at the right time.
After clinching postseason bids on the final day of the regular season the last two years, you don’t need to remind the Rays of that.
Hey, better late than never. Right?