Evan Longoria and 13 Other Keys to the Three-Headed AL East Title Race

William JohnsonCorrespondent IIIJuly 6, 2011

Evan Longoria and 13 Other Keys to the Three-Headed AL East Title Race

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    With all due respect to Toronto and Baltimore, the AL East is mostly considered a three-horse race between the defending champion Tampa Bay Rays, who have won two of the last three, the Red Sox, who won it in 2007 (along with the World Series,) and the Yankees, who have pretty much won it since baseball was invented.

    But the teams are so talented and so competitive against each other it is impossible to decide who a clear-cut division winner will be (at least since the Rays entered the discussion.)

    In the end, there is no running away with an AL East division title.

    And there are so many factors that can play into an AL East team's division chances. Here are 14 of them. This is probably not ALL of them, but each of these factors may play a key role in who will be the 2011 AL East champion and, heck, even the World Series champion.

     

    *With the exception of Derek Jeter's hitting streak, the statistics for this article are updated as of 7/5/11 before game time.

July

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    July is one of two months in which the "big three" face off against each other. The Rays are the biggest victims, facing both the Red Sox and Yankees a total of 11 times during the month.

    In a division where the lead is fluctuating between one and five games, each series could potentially be fatal (or beneficial) to the hopes of the Rays, Yankees, and Red Sox.

    • Rays @ New York (July 7th-10th)
    • Yankees @ Tampa Bay (July 18th-21st)
    • Red Sox @ Tampa Bay (July 15th-17th)

September

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    Like July, this is a vital month for the AL East as the rest of the season, save perhaps one series or two, is a clash between inter-division rivals.

    The Rays once again have a tough time of it, facing the Red Sox and Yankees 12 times. They face the Yankees in five of the last eight games, including the season's final regular season series.

    However, if you count the final two days of August, the Red Sox actually face both the Rays and Yankees a total of 13 times. The two teams will face off in the penultimate season series.

    Will this month decide the division? Or, at the very least, the Wild Card race?

    • Yankees @ Boston (August 30th-September 1st)
    • Red Sox @ Tampa Bay (September 9th-11th)
    • Rays @ Red Sox (September 15th-18th)
    • Red Sox @ New York (September 23rd-25th)
    • Rays @ New York (September 20th and 21st)
    • Yankees @ Tampa Bay (September 26th-28th)

No More Interleague Play

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    The AL always has a good time devouring the NL in interleague play, but the AL East really likes it. It pads their records and either puts a nice cushion on division leads or keeps the pretenders nearby, ready to strike.

    The Red Sox only managed to go 10-8 during interleague play, but the Rays (12-6) and Yankees (13-5) thrived.

    As a result, the division is still a 4.5 game story.

Pitcher Madness

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    "A team is only as good as it's pitching." —Joe Torre

    All three AL East contenders have gifted, Cy Young-caliber pitching staffs. But they also have big questions.

    Will the Red Sox find a dependable fifth starter who can go the distance? Will David Price the Rays snap out of his nearly .500 mediocrity? Will Jeremy Hellickson get out of his current funk? What will happen with Rafael Soriano? And Mariano Rivera, for that matter?

    Can Josh Beckett maintain his career year? Can James Shields? Will Bartolo Colon stay healthy the rest of the year? How bad is Jon Lester's most recent injury?

    If Torre's axiom is true, the AL East will be won by the team that can answer the questions regarding their pitchers.

Boston vs. New York

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    No matter what, the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry is bound to cause fireworks. And usually the head-to-head matchup, even if it appears lopsided at the on-set, lives up to its hype.

    This year, the Red Sox have dominated the Yankees (so far, anyway) to the tune of an 8-1 record and a 23-run differential. But here is the history of Red Sox-Yankee baseball in the last decade:

    • 2010: regular season 9-9, Rays won the division
    • 2009:  9-9, Yankees won the division, AL, and the World Series
    • 2008:  9-9, Rays won the division and the AL
    • 2007: 10-8 Yankees, Red Sox won the division, AL, and the World Series
    • 2006: 11-8 Yankees, Yankees won the division, Red Sox didn't make the playoffs
    • 2005: 10-9 Yankees, Yankees won the division, Red Sox made the wild card
    • 2004: 11-8 Red Sox, Yankees won the division, Boston beat the Yankees in the ALCS and won the World Series
    • 2003: 10-9 Yankees, Yankees won the division and the AL, beating the Red Sox (wild card) in the ALCS
    • 2002: 10-9 Yankees, Yankees won the division, Red Sox didn't make the playoffs
    • 2001: 13-5 Yankees, Yankees won the division and the AL, Red Sox didn't make the playoffs

    As you can see, the Yankees only dominated the Red Sox once in the regular season. And in recent years, the knockdown, drag-out war has only been a preview of the playoffs, with little room for error, or a detriment to the division title (as the Rays got two of the last three) itself.

    The Yankees have won the majority of division pennants, but even when they did, it didn't guarantee a division or even a playoff advantage (see 2004.) If anything, this matchup makes the division run more challenging and more exciting, especially now since the Rays are yearly contenders for the division crown.

Boston vs. #3, #4, and #5

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    The Red Sox are having their way, currently, with the Yankees. Their 8-1 record gives them a big advantage if tiebreakers ever come into play (or simple bragging rights.)

    However, the Red Sox have unperformed against the No. 3, No. 4, and No. 5 teams in the AL East division.

    Sporting a 2-2 record vs. No. 5 Baltimore, a 6-4 record versus No. 4 Toronto and a 2-3 record against No. 3 Tampa Bay is making Boston's return to the top of the division harder then expected.

    Considering the final month of the season, when wins are vital, is against these teams and ONLY these teams, the Red Sox may have trouble.

    Their division record is an impressive 18-10 (and beating the Yankees sure does help and certainly does count.) But, as I noted in the previous slide, the series tends to always even out. And with a 10-9 record against the rest of the division, the Sox have to step up to claim the pennant.

Other AL Achilles Heels

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    It is a small sample set, but the Red Sox and Rays have had early season struggles against other AL opponents (outside of the East.)

    For the Rays it is the Tigers. They play only four more times this season but in the three games so far, the Rays are 0-3 and are minus-5 in the scoring column. And four games could decide the division.

    As for the Red Sox, it is the Rangers. They play seven more times this season, and the Red Sox were outscored 26-11 in the three games they played against them earlier (0-3 record.)

Derek Jeter

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    As of July 6th, Derek Jeter is at 2,996 hits. And when he finally gets to 3,000 (and, barring something serious, he WILL,) it will be a quick moment of pride and joy.

    But then it will end. The current 3,000 hunt is something truly wonderful. An amazing ballplayer entering a truly amazing and elite statistical category.

    But it's almost like the Yankees, who have made life tough (relatively of course, is his life really that bad?) for Jeter, seem to be waiting for the 3,000th hit, the tip of the hat and the speech before beginning the downsizing of his Hall of Fame-worthy career.

    Will the Yankees get a new shortstop? Will Jeter change positions? It seems to be when and not if Jeter is messed around with. And as soon as that is all worked out, the Yankees can focus on the division, the league and a championship.

    Is it fair? No. Jeter has served his time in a sport not known for career-long team loyalty. But the writing seems to be on the wall. After 3,000, the Yankees might be looking to change and the shockwaves could affect the divisional title race.

Evan Longoria

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    Longoria is the face of the Rays franchise, present and future. The young superstar means so much to his team and backs it up—he provides for them as well.

    Longoria has been struggling with consistency at the plate, nursing a .235 average compared to a career .279. And there is the rub. If Longoria can start hitting at a higher percentage rate, the Rays may be unstoppable.

    Take a look at his stats thus far this season. Longo suffered a DL stint early in the season after only five at-bats, so his plate appearances are considerably less then those of his teammates. Regardless, look how he compares with his team:

    • Longoria, in 101 fewer plate appearances, is two HRs behind team leader B.J. Upton (10 for Longoria, 12 for Upton).
    • Longoria is fourth in RBIs behind Ben Zobrist (358 PA, 40 RBI), Matt Joyce (287 PA, 40 RBI), Johnny Damon (344 PAs, 41 RBI), and Upton (331 PAs, 42 RBI) with 37 (in 230 PAs).
    • Longoria is tied for fourth on the team with 15 doubles. He's behind Casey Kotchman (16 in 248 PAs), Joyce (20 in 287 PAs), and Zobrist (27 in 358 PAs).
    • Longoria is tied for fourth in BB and second in slugging all with considerably less plate appearances then the rest of his team.

    It is clear Longoria's production is incredible. Soon he will be the team leader in almost every category, despite having missed a large portion of plate appearances. Now add a much sexier batting average and we're talking wins for the Rays, possibly a division title and MVP talk.

Josh Beckett

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    Here is what Josh Beckett, by accumulating career totals over his 11 seasons, averages every year:

    • 15-10 record, 3.84 ERA, 198 Ks

    Now compare this to 2010 and 2011.

    • 2010: 6-6 record, 5.78 ERA, 116 Ks
    • 2011 so far: 7-3 record, 2.12 ERA, 91 Ks

    If Beckett performs just as well in the second half of the season, he could be looking at 14-18 wins, a barely 2+ ERA and 182 Ks. Maybe not the greatest year of all time for him, but far above 2010 expectations and certainly a career worth reconsidering.

    But can he keep it up? Red Sox fans hope so. If he can, the Sox have a dangerous—and perhaps unexpected—weapon at their disposal.

Toronto Blue Jays

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    The barely sub-.500 team is a traveling circus of hitting. Though only standing at 42-44, the Blue Jays are, compared to the other AL teams, fourth in runs scored, sixth in total hits, first in triples, third in home runs, fifth in RBIs, fourth in walks and fourth in slugging percentage.

    They've played in 30 one-run games, are 7-2 in extra innings and are edging toward .500 records against the Yankees (3-5), Red Sox (4-6) and Rays (3-5).

    Are they contenders to the division title? Maybe not this year. But are they guaranteed to play spoiler for one of the "big three?" No doubt.

Baltimore Orioles

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    Can the Orioles show the second-half magic they showed in 2010? Remember? The second half where they were 34-24 in the last three months of the season, winning 17 of 28 in August, 14 of 26 in September and 3 of 4 in October.

    At the very least, they can play spoiler, yes? The Orioles play the Red Sox seven times in the final month of the season, including the last series. They are 2-2 versus said Sox and are 6-6 versus the Rays this season.

Rafael Soriano

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    Latest reports have the struggling reliever, still on the 60-Day DL, throwing in the bullpen.

    Good news or bad news? Soriano showed none of the MVP/Cy Young worthy skill he showed in Tampa last season in 16 very brief and sometimes painful appearances this year.

    He's getting paid the big bucks to be the setup man for Mariano Rivera and as the big contract dictates, perhaps be the closer of the future once Rivera hangs it up (though Soriano isn't exactly a young stud himself any more.)

    So if he returns, will he be a detriment or will the results be as expected, just a bit delayed? If the Yankees rely on him and he fails, it could cost them the division and the playoffs. But if he delivers, watch out Boston and Tampa Bay.

Tampa's Bats

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    Even though the Rays have Matt Joyce, a freshly minted All-Star, hitting a career best .298, Casey Kotchman hitting a team high .338, and Johnny Damon hitting his best average since 2009 or 2008, the Rays are still only beating the offensively meager Athletics, Twins and Mariners in team batting average.

    Part of Tampa's dreadful 1-8 start was their woeful approach at the plate. While they do rest at 47-38, amazing considering the beginning to the season, the Rays could do so much better with more consistent hitting.

    Due to the low batting average, the Rays have a pitiful on-base percentage and have been blown out 11 times. Plus, without good bats, the good pitchers on the team aren't getting any run support.

    The Rays primary pitching studs are: David Price (8-7), James Shields (8-5) and Jeremy Hellickson (8-7). They've shown better then their records indicate. The offense must help out.