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Why Everything Went Horribly Wrong for the Rays, Pirates in MLB Playoff Races

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Why Everything Went Horribly Wrong for the Rays, Pirates in MLB Playoff Races
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
For Andrew McCutchen's Pirates, it's 2011 all over again.

Not too long ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Tampa Bay Rays looked like locks to be playing in October.

At the All-Star break, the Pirates had a 48-37 record and were in first place in the NL Central. Even after stumbling out of first place in the first few weeks of the second half, they were still 15 games over .500 and tied to one of the National League's two wild-card spots when August opened up.

Ever since, they've gone 15-31. The Pirates are now on the outside looking in on the NL Wild-Card race, and they seem ticketed for their 20th straight postseason-less season.

The Rays are experiencing a similar decline. As late as Aug. 23, they were 15 games over .500 at 70-55, and they were holding the top spot in the American League Wild-Card race. They also were only 2.5 games out in the AL East race.

Heading into their Thursday night showdown against the Boston Red Sox, the Rays were losers of seven out of 10 and 15 of their last 24 games overall.

After what happened with the Pirates in 2011, their collapse in 2012 isn't such a surprise. The Bucs finished the 2011 campaign by going 18-38 in August and September, and this year's team is headed down a very similar path.

The Rays' collapse, which obviously isn't nearly as dire as that of the Pirates, is a little more surprising. They went 35-20 in August and September in 2011, ultimately coming out of nowhere to steal the AL's wild card from the Boston Red Sox. They've effectively pulled a complete 180 from where they were last year.

As for how the Pirates and Rays have each managed to sink so low, let's just say there's a long story to tell for each team.

 

How Tampa Bay Has Collapsed

In the first half of the season, the Rays basically were an afterthought. They opened the season on fire by going 15-8 in April, but promptly descended into mediocrity after Evan Longoria got hurt in early May.

The Rays went 14-14 in May, 12-15 in June, and ultimately went into the All-Star break with a record of 45-41. At that point, they were 8.5 games off the pace in the AL East. They didn't seem to be much of a threat.

If there was a reason to be wary of the Rays, though, it was because of their pitching. The Rays went into the break tied for fourth in the American League with the Yankees with a team ERA of 3.73, and only three teams in the Junior Circuit were holding opposing hitters to a lower batting average than the Rays.

J. Meric/Getty Images
Opposing hitters hit over .300 against Shields in June.

The only Rays starter who really stood out at the break was David Price, who was selected to the All-Star Game on the strength of an 11-4 record and a 2.82 ERA. Aside from him, James Shields was struggling to recapture the dominant form he showed in 2011, and young hurlers Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson hadn't exactly put up superstar numbers.

The status quo held in the first couple weeks after the All-Star break, as the Rays went 9-9 in their first 18 games of the second half. When August opened up, they were 6.5 games out of first in the AL East, and 2.5 games off the pace in the AL Wild-Card race.

That's when the Rays started to make their move.

The Rays started August by winning nine of their first 11 games and 14 out of their first 18. They stumbled in the last couple weeks of the month, but they still managed to finish with a record of 17-11, their best showing in a single month since April.

They did it mainly with pitching. Rays starters posted an MLB-best 2.83 ERA in August. Price posted a 2.12 ERA and a 0.88 WHIP in five starts. Moore went 3-1 with a 2.19 ERA. Shields found his stuff and went 3-1 with a 2.52 ERA and a 0.76 WHIP. Alex Cobb came out of nowhere to go 4-0 with a 3.38 ERA.

It wasn't just the starting rotation that was having all the fun. Rays relievers posted a sparkling 0.88 ERA in August. Jake McGee, Kyle Farnsworth and Fernando Rodney all posted ERAs under 1.00, and Joel Peralta made a team-high 13 appearances and posted an ERA of 2.13.

Offensively, the Rays lineup got a boost when Longo returned to action on Aug. 7. He only hit .241 with a .719 OPS in 22 games after returning, but his comeback had the desired effect on the Rays offense as a whole. Regulars such as B.J. Upton, Desmond Jennings, Ben Zobrist and Jeff Keppinger all posted OPS over .800, and the Rays averaged 4.32 runs per game during the month of August.

That's a modest figure, but it was a significant increase over the 3.96 runs per game that the Rays averaged in July. Likewise, the team upped its OPS nearly 100 points from .662 to .741.

Felix Hernandez's perfect game against the Rays on Aug. 15 made it clear that their lineup was still largely imperfect, but the Rays bounced back from that embarrassment with a five-game winning streak that saw them average 8.4 runs per game. Their offense was imperfect, but it was no pushover.

So what's gone wrong in September?

Believe it or not, the Rays' struggles this month have little to do with their offense. Heading into Thursday night's contest, the Rays had an OPS of .729 in September. So far, they're averaging more than 4.5 runs per game.

J. Meric/Getty Images
Tampa's offense has been good enough in September.

Upton has done his part by blasting seven home runs this month. Zobrist has two homers and 16 RBI. Longo has three homers and 10 RBI. Carlos Pena has an OPS over 1.000 with a pair of home runs. Generally speaking, the guys who are supposed to be hitting are hitting.

The problem is that Tampa Bay's pitching has regressed. After posting a 2.83 ERA in August, Rays starters have posted a 3.48 ERA in September. While still very good, that's a pretty big increase from where the Rays were last month.

Shields and Hellickson are still going strong in September, but Moore has scuffled to the tune of an 0-3 record and a 7.43 ERA. Chris Archer has stepped in and issued nine walks in just more than 15 innings. Price has a 2.63 ERA this month, but that's not counting his so-so outing against the Red Sox on Thursday night. They got to him for eight hits and a walk in 7.1 innings, ultimately forcing Price to surrender three earned runs.

It's not just Rays starters who have taken a step back relative to where they were in August. Rays relievers have lost four games and posted a 3.53 ERA so far in September. Farnsworth is responsible for three of the four losses, and he has an ERA over 5.00 and a WHIP over 2.00. Peralta also has an ERA over 5.00.

Granted, you can tell by the offensive numbers and the pitching numbers that the Rays have posted this month that things really haven't gone that awry for them. They're not getting crushed in every area of the game.

That reality shows through in the kinds of games they've lost. Of the last nine games the Rays have lost, seven of the losses have come by two runs or fewer. One of the other losses was by a mere three runs.

These are exactly the kinds of games that the Rays were winning last September. Of their final eight wins last year, five were by three runs or less. This time last year, they were winning the close ones more often than not.

Rob Carr/Getty Images
The Rays are 6-9 against the Orioles in 2012.

Compacting matters is the fact that the Rays recently dropped five games to the Orioles and Yankees, the very two teams they're trying to keep pace with in the AL East. They still technically have a shot at catching them, but in reality, that ship has sailed.

Their hopes are all in the wild-card race right now, and their outlook there isn't much more positive. The Orioles, A's and Angels all have double-digit wins in September, while the Rays just broke even for the month at 9-9 with their walk-off win over the Red Sox on Thursday night.

This is another thing that makes 2012 different from 2011 for the Rays. When they were chasing the Red Sox in 2011, they were trying to catch up to a dying team. The teams they're chasing this year are alive and well, and playing very good baseball.

The door is still open for the Rays to make the playoffs, but it's closing very fast.

 

How Pittsburgh Has Collapsed

The story of the Rays' collapse isn't such a tragic tale. In fact, calling their collapse a "collapse" is a bit much. What they're going through is more of a "dwindling" than a collapse.

The Pirates, on the other hand...

We'll get to where they are now in a minute. First, a bit of background is necessary.

The Pirates didn't light the world on fire out of the gate this season. They went 10-12 in April and 15-13 in May, putting them at an even 25-25 to start the month of June.

That's when the Pirates took off, and it was largely thanks to one man.

Andrew McCutchen hit .370/.420/.676 with seven homers and 26 RBI in June, leading the Pirates to a 17-10 record. He had help, too, as Pedro Alvarez discovered his stroke and hit seven homers with a .926 OPS in June. Garrett Jones hit five homers with an .899 OPS.

All told, the Pirates ended up leading MLB in runs scored in June with 146.

Justin Edmonds/Getty Images
Only Mike Trout and Ryan Zimmerman posted higher WARs than McCutchen in July.

For his part, McCutchen didn't let up when the calendar turned to July. He hit .517/.548/.931 in the final seven games before the All-Star break, helping the Pirates win six of seven to go into the break with a 48-37 record. At the time, their run differential was a solid plus-32.

McCutchen ended up hitting .446/.510/.739 for the entirety of July. Neil Walker pitched in with a 1.097 OPS and seven homers that month, and Jones and Alvarez each hit six home runs. The Pirates ended July with 130 runs scored, fifth in MLB.

It wasn't just hitting that was powering the Pirates earlier in those days. A.J. Burnett went 12-1 with a 2.58 ERA in 16 starts between May 8 and the end of July. James McDonald went into the All-Star break with a 9-3 record and a 2.37 ERA. The club's relievers posted a 2.86 ERA in June and a 2.73 ERA in July.

The Pirates didn't have a lot of pitching beyond Burnett and McDonald, but their offense packed enough punch to overcome all obstacles, and their bullpen was dominant enough to protect any lead it was handed. If this formula held, there was nothing the Pirates couldn't do in the final two months of the season.

You can guess what happened: The formula didn't hold.

In June and July, the Pirates averaged 5.21 runs per game. In August, they averaged 4.32 runs per game, and for good reason.

McCutchen hit a wall in August, producing just a .252/.347/.346 triple-slash line with two home runs. Jones and Alvarez did their parts, but they failed to get any help from either McCutchen or Walker, both of whom were on fire in the month of July.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Burnett has a 4.88 ERA over his last eight starts.

Pittsburgh's pitching also took a turn for the worse. The team's starters combined to lose 13 games while posting a 4.76 ERA. Burnett compiled a 5.18 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP. McDonald and trade-deadline acquisition Wandy Rodriguez both posted ERAs over 4.00. Erik Bedard posted an ERA near 6.00 and was cut loose at the end of the month.

Pirates relievers had a tough time as well, losing four games and compiling an ERA of 3.76. 

One of the games in which Pittsburgh's bullpen actually performed very well was the Pirates' 19-inning marathon game against the St. Louis Cardinals that they ultimately ended up winning. It was widely expected at the time that the Pirates' victory would have the opposite effect that the notorious "Jerry Meals game" had on the Pirates in 2011. Whereas that game was a killing blow, Pittsburgh's victory over St. Louis in 19 innings this year surely would be a sort of kick-start.

This, of course, hasn't happened. The Pirates dropped four in a row and seven out of 10 immediately after their 19-inning win over the Cardinals. They began the month of September with a 70-61 record and deficits in both the NL Central and wild-card races.

It's been more of the same for the Pirates in September. Not including their loss to the Brewers on Thursday in which they scored seven runs, the Pirates are scoring just 3.59 runs per game this month. McCutchen is hitting very well, but now Jones and Alvarez are struggling. Alvarez is hitting under .200 with a .618 OPS in September, and Jones is hitting .267 with a .714 OPS.

Pittsburgh's pitching is still struggling as well. Burnett, Rodriguez and Kevin Correia have been solid, but McDonald was bad enough to get booted from the rotation (see: AP report), and Jeff Locke, Bedard's replacement, has an ERA over 7.00.

The struggles of Pittsburgh's starting rotation pale in comparison to the struggles of Pittsburgh's bullpen, however. Pirates relievers have a 5.46 ERA in September, second-worst in MLB behind the Miami Marlins. Joel Hanrahan, Chris Leroux, Jason Grilli and Jared Hughes all have ERAs over 5.00.

All told, Pittsburgh's relievers have lost six games in September, tying them with the Rockies for the most among relievers this month.

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
The Astros have twice as many wins as the Pirates in September.

Murphy's Law has taken over Pittsburgh's season. What could have gone wrong has gone wrong. And when you zoom out and look at things from a wider perspective, you'll realize that the Pirates are telling us a very similar story to the one they told us in 2011.

The Pirates went 18-38 in the season's final two months in 2011, a .321 winning percentage.

They're 15-31 since the first of August so far this season. That's a .326 winning percentage.

The Pirates finally dipped below .500 at 74-75 with their loss to the Brewers on Thursday. They have a chance to save face against the Astros and Mets over their next seven games, which means they could be set up for a strong finish when they head home to wrap up their season with six games against the Reds and Braves.

There's just one problem: Whether or not the Pirates are even better than the Astros and Mets at this point is a little too debatable.

 

Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

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