The Tampa Bay Rays lost to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, at Anaheim, July 27. They dropped to 51-49 and trailed the Yankees by 9½ games in the AL East. They stood fifth in the wild-card standings, 3½ games behind the Athletics.
Since then, the Rays have gone 11-3; they are the leaders in the wild-card race, and you better watch your backs, Yankees, because Tampa Bay is now just five games behind you (and the Rays and Yanks have six games remaining against each other).
How have they done this? Unlike some other contenders, the Rays didn't make any significant deals at the July 31 deadline. Their only pre-deadline acquisition was third baseman Ryan Roberts from the Diamondbacks. But Roberts has hit .216/.344/.333 since his arrival, his .678 OPS just slightly better than what he posted for Arizona, and his playing time has been reduced by the return of Evan Longoria. Longoria was off to a hot start when he suffered a hamstring injury in April; the Rays' record without him in the lineup is 41-44, but Longoria has hit .261/.308/.304 in six games since his return, so it can't be that. How are the Rays doing it?
Pitching, of course, is the answer. Matt Moore made a splashy debut late last September and starred in the Division Series in 2011, but hadn't pitched well most of 2012. That's changed over his last four starts, during which he's posted a 1.05 ERA in 25⅔ innings, with a 0.935 WHIP. That's lowered his season ERA to 3.73.
Over the 14-game span in question, the Rays have thrown four shutouts, including a three-hit, 11-strikeout gem by James Shields; allowed one run four other times, and outscored their opponents (including playoff contenders such as the Angels, A's and Orioles) 59-25. They allowed more than three runs just once, and won that game 12-6. The Rays' pitching staff now has allowed the fewest runs of any American League squad.
So that's set -- Rays pitching is doing what it did late in 2011, and with Moore, Shields and David Price (who leads the AL in wins, as much as that means, and is third in ERA) anchoring the rotation, they are set to go deep in a postseason run. Any team that has Jeremy Hellickson as its fourth starter and Alex Cobb as a fifth starter has pitching riches any playoff team would die for. Not literally, of course. And that isn't even mentioning their deep bullpen, anchored by the surprising Fernando Rodney. Where did that year come from?
Tampa Bay's offense is the worry. They rank 10th in OBP, 10th in home runs, and 12th in run-scoring in the American League. Just two of their regulars are having anything near what you'd call a good offensive season, and one of them, Matt Joyce, missed a month with an oblique injury. Some Rays hitters -- Carlos Pena and B.J. Upton come to mind -- are playing well below former levels of performance. Pena is leading the team with 15 home runs; that's by far the lowest team-leading total among any of the AL playoff contenders (next-lowest: David Ortiz leads the Red Sox with 23).
But that pitching, oh, that pitching. They were best in the AL in 2011, and they seem on the way to doing that again this year. If they can get Longoria back to his usual level of offense, and get some production from even one or two other hitters, they might be a very dangerous postseason team.