Left for dead by many in the American League wild-card chase, both the Angels and the Rays have caught fire in the last few days. The Angels have won four in a row, in no small part thanks to great pitching and consistent production from Albert Pujols. The Rays have won six in a row, in no small part thanks to Evan Longoria's bat.
Heading into Wednesday's action, the Angels are just two games behind the A's for the second wild-card spot. The Rays are right there with them at three games off the pace.
With a week to go in the regular season, which team has a better chance of actually pulling off a triumphant comeback: Longo's Rays or Prince Albert's Angels?
This calls for an immediate discussion.
What Longo Is Up to
September didn't really start off on a positive note for the Rays, but it wasn't Longo's fault. In the first 15 games he played this month, he gave the Rays solid production by hitting .250/.328/.446 with three homers and 10 RBI.
During Tampa Bay's six-game winning streak, however, Longo's production has gone up to 11. He's hitting .435/.500/.696 with a homer and five RBI in Tampa's last six games. Of his last 10 hits, four have been for extra bases.
We've seen Longo do this before. He was at the heart of the Rays' 17-10 run last September, hitting .289/.454/.589 with seven homers and 22 RBI. He capped off his strong month by hitting two homers and driving in four runs in the Rays' dramatic extra-inning victory over the Yankees on the final day of the regular season.
Just as important as Longo's hitting for the Rays these days is the fact that he's been healthy enough to play third base on a regular basis. His defense hasn't been the same this season due to his various injuries, but he's still a better defensive option at the hot corner than the likes of Sean Rodriguez and Jeff Keppinger.
In a sense, despite the fact that he's been off the disabled list for a couple of months at this point, Longo is finally "back." His bat is alive and well, and Joe Maddon can rest a little easier knowing that Longo is capable of patrolling the hot corner on an everyday basis.
As long as this is the status quo, the Rays will be in pretty good shape.
What Pujols Is Up to
Unlike Longo, Pujols didn't get off to a very good start this month. In the first 14 games he played during September, Pujols hit just .224/.274/.397 with one homer and five RBI.
Pujols has snapped out of it over the last week or so. In his last six games, he's hitting .435/.458/.565 with six RBI. During the Angels' four-game winning streak, he's driven in six runs.
If that's not enough to tell you that Pujols has been clutch lately, this little nugget from ESPN Stats & Info might do the trick:
Random fact of day: Albert Pujols has a hit in each of last 6 AB with score tied, matching longest such streak of his career, says Elias.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) Sept. 26, 2012
Yeah, Pujols knows what the score is these days, literally and figuratively. He knows the Angels need him at his best right now.
This is what Pujols typically does in September. For his career, he's a .335/.428/.594 hitter in September. He's driven in more runs in September than he has in any month except for August, which is impressive seeing as how he's hit fewer homers in September than he has in any other month.
However, it shouldn't be taken as a given that Pujols will carry the Angels the rest of the way. Teams are going to be keying in on stopping him, and recent history tells us they may be successful. When the Cardinals were desperately trying to get into the postseason last year, Pujols didn't really help. He only hit .188/.212/.344 his last seven games in 2011.
In the event that Pujols starts slumping again, the pressure will be on the Angels' pitching staff to lessen the load that the offense has to carry.
Then again, this isn't such a tricky proposal. More on that in a moment.
What the Rays Are Up to
How have the Rays won six games in a row?
In typical Rays fashion, of course. Their offense has been explosive recently, but good pitching is at the root of the team's recent success.
Over the last six games, Rays starters have compiled a 2.45 ERA and an impressive 10.55 K/9, according to FanGraphs. Chris Archer, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson and David Price have all picked up wins.
The other two wins during the Rays' streak belong to the bullpen, which has posted a 2.60 ERA over the last six games with an 8.83 K/9 and a 0.52 ERA. Fernando Rodney has been characteristically filthy in the two games in which he's appeared, and Burke Badenhop, Wade Davis and Kyle Farnsworth all have turned in fine performances.
However, one thing to keep in mind is that the Rays aren't really doing their David vs. Goliath thing these days. What they're really doing is beating up on other Davids.
Of Tampa's last six wins, three have come against Boston, and three have come against Toronto. Combined, the Red Sox and Blue Jays are 15-30 this month. Per ESPN.com, the Jays rank 12th in the AL in runs scored in September, and the Red Sox rank 13th. Boston has an ERA of 4.96 this month, and Toronto has an ERA of 5.18.
As such, the competition the Rays have faced during their six-game winning streak hasn't been doing a whole lot of competing recently. Their winning streak and Longo's hotness have to be taken for what they're worth.
What the Angels Are Up to
Just as the Rays' recent success has been built on the backs of their pitchers, both the Angels' recent success and their success in the month of September in general have been built on their own pitchers' backs.
The Angels have an MLB-best 2.48 ERA this month. Their starters have posted a 2.53 ERA, and their relievers have held up their end of the bargain with a 2.36 ERA. Ernesto Frieri hasn't been perfect this month, but he's saved five of the 13 wins Angels starters have accumulated in September.
Four of those have come during the Angels' four-game winning streak. Ervin Santana got the ball rolling with seven strong innings against the Chicago White Sox Sept. 21, and Dan Haren, Jered Weaver and Zack Greinke all followed suit with strong performances of their own.
Combined between the four of them, Santana, Haren, Weaver and Greinke allowed five earned runs in 24.1 innings in the Angels' last four games, with 32 strikeouts and five walks. The word "dominant" comes to mind, as do various expressions that involve the word "holy" and assorted four-letter words.
Bear in mind that the competition the Angels have faced during their four-game winning streak hasn't been all that horrible. The White Sox are tied with the Detroit Tigers atop the AL Central, and the Mariners really haven't been a pushover since the All-Star break. This month, they have a 3.49 team ERA and have hit just as many home runs as the Miguel Cabrera-led Tigers.
As such, there's a little bit more to the Angels' streak than there is to the Rays' streak. The Rays are winning games they should be winning. The Angels are winning games that could, in theory, go either way.
The Road Ahead
It won't be much longer before the Rays' recent success is put to the test. They'll wrap up a brief two-game series at Fenway Park Wednesday night, and after that, they'll only play contenders the rest of the way.
First up will be a four-game series against the White Sox in Chicago, in which the Rays are slated to face both Jake Peavy and Chris Sale. Peavy hasn't faced the Rays yet this year, but Sale struck out 15 against the Rays when he faced them in May. That was during a three-game series at the Trop that the White Sox swept with little difficulty.
Fortunately for the Rays, they're set to show the White Sox their best. Shields, Hellickson and Price are all slated to pitch against the Sox in Chicago this weekend.
The Rays may be able to take that series if those three pitchers are on top of their game, but things won't get any easier for them after they're finished in Chicago. They'll have to head home to finish off the season with a three-game series against the Orioles.
The Rays are just 6-9 against the Orioles this season, and that's thanks largely to the fact that the Rays just haven't been able to hit Baltimore's pitching. Rays hitters have a mere .625 OPS against the O's this year.
Complicating matters even further is the fact that the Orioles are the best road team in the American League, with a record of 45-33. The Rays' home-field advantage won't necessarily be an advantage.
Though it's not a walk in the park by any stretch of the imagination, the Angels' remaining schedule is a little easier. They have two games remaining against the Mariners at home, and they'll ultimately wrap up their season with a three-game series up in Seattle.
Angels hitters have fared better than most at Safeco Field this season, posting a .714 OPS with eight homers in seven games. Pujols is responsible for three of those homers, and he also has an OPS of 1.146 at Safeco this season.
Naturally, the Angels' pitchers have been even better in Seattle this season, posting a 1.89 ERA and holding Mariners hitters to a .544 OPS.
In between for the Angels lies a three-game series at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Their hitters have fared very well there, posting a .915 OPS and hitting 19 home runs in just seven games. Pujols has a 1.221 OPS in Arlington with four homers.
Angels pitchers, however, haven't done so well against the Rangers in Arlington this year. They have an 8.80 ERA at Texas this season and have been knocked around by Rangers hitters to the tune of a .985 OPS.
The Angels are going to need their pitchers to do a lot better than that. On the bright side, they're lined up to throw Weaver, Santana and Greinke at the Rangers. Weaver and Greinke are both aces, and Santana has a 2.03 ERA in September.
The Angels are 8-8 against the Rangers this year. They won't catch them for the AL West lead, but they may be able to steal the season series.
The Grand Conclusion
Let's assume we're all betting men (and women). If so, what we're asking ourselves right now is whether the smart money is on the Angels or Rays to actually see their hot streak through to the end.
My suggestion: Take the Angels.
Longo is swinging the bat well and is back at third base on a regular basis. It's obviously very hard to bet against Tampa Bay's pitching, but here's a little factoid that makes it hard to put a lot of stock into what the Rays are doing these days: Of the 13 wins they've earned this month, eight have come against either Boston or Toronto. The Rays are 8-2 against them, and 5-7 against everyone else.
Which team is more likely to earn a wild-card spot?
The Angels, on the other hand, are 15-7 this month, and they've earned their wins against some tough customers. They've swept the A's, Tigers and White Sox, and they also took a series from a Royals team that has been playing decent baseball for more than two months at this point.
The Angels' pitching is performing just as well as Tampa's pitching this month, and another thing that makes them a safer bet is the fact that the Angels don't really lean all that heavily on Pujols for offense. Torii Hunter and Kendrys Morales have come alive in September, and you never know when Mike Trout is going to do something awesome.
Plus, they only have two games to make up in the standings, whereas the Rays have three games to make up. The Angels thus have a shorter hill to climb, and a stronger motor to take them the rest of the way.
If one of these two teams is going to make it to the top, it will be the Angels.
...Of course, now that I've doubted the Rays in print, they probably won't lose again this season.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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