The Tampa Bay Rays have been creeping up in the A.L. East standings and not too many people have actually noticed.
They’ve noticed that the once-dominant New York Yankees are in free fall, winning just six of their last 21 games and falling from first place in the A.L. East to three-and-a-half games behind the Boston Red Sox, who have been surging of late.
But suddenly the Rays are just a game behind the Yankees in the standings, and a four-and-a-half game deficit isn’t impossible, or even hard, to overcome when the season hasn’t even reached the All-Star break.
Then on Thursday in Tampa at the Trop, the Rays defeated Red Sox ace, six-time All-Star and early Cy Young Award candidate Chris Sale. Sale still had double-digit strikeouts, actually setting a Red Sox record for having 12 games in which he had 10 or more K’s before the All-Star break. The previous record was held by Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez with 11 in 1999.
It’s likely that the Red Sox were blindsided, or at least they didn’t see it coming. The last time they faced the Rays was in mid-May at Fenway Park. Since then the Rays have won nine of their past 16 series and came out ready to face the team they may end up fighting for the division title.
Boston’s skipper John Farrell said that he and the team were “not surprised at all” by the Rays being in such a good position, but prior to the season, most people expected them to end up in the cellar of the A.L. East.
These are a different group of Rays than in previous years. These Rays can hit, while past teams have relied mostly on having good starting pitching. They still have good starting pitching with guys like Chris Archer taking the mound every five days.
On Thursday, it was THE 23-year-old rookie, Jacob Faria, who took the mound against Sale and the Red Sox. He pitched a full six innings, allowing just four hits and one run.
Faria did make some mistakes, like allowing four walks. He also hit Boston shortstop Xander Bogaerts with a pitch in the first inning. The ball hit Bogaerts’ hand. He was in visible pain and had to leave the game.
Luckily, x-rays on his hand were negative, but the hand was visibly swollen after the game. Bogaerts is leading the team with a.308 batting average and 96 hits this season. Losing him for any significant period of time could hurt the Red Sox.
But it was the Rays’ offense that won the game. Peter Bourjos took Sale deep for a solo shot in the fifth inning, but it was catcher Wilson Ramos who was the real hero.
Wilson doubled in Andrew Benintendi in the bottom of the fourth and basically sealed the deal for the Rays with a two-run shot off of Sale in the sixth inning.
The thing with the 2017 Rays is that Bourjos and Ramos are not their most prolific hitters, and for once, neither is the face of the Rays, Evan Longoria. First baseman Logan Morrison, who just missed out on making the All-Star Game, has hit 24 home runs and designated hitter Corey Dickerson has hit 17 long balls.
They’re getting on base, hitting home runs, and the Rays recently upgraded their defense by trading for shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria. Plus, infielder Tim Beckham has suddenly become a solid player at age 27.
Ramos got the team pumped up for the series prior to the game Thursday.
“I talked to my guys, to my teammates, and told them this series is very important for us because we’re behind that team. That’s the series we have to play hard, we have to win. If we want to be in first place in the division, we have to play good baseball against those teams like Boston.”
He is and was right. If the Rays can win this series against the Red Sox, it will make a statement to the rest of the league, which is something Tampa Bay needs to do to remind every team that they are there, and they are playing good baseball.
Rays’ manager Kevin Cash knew they needed to make a statement and beating Sale, who they will not face again during this series, has given them necessary momentum.
“I’d say it’s a pretty big message… They knew they had to be at their best on the mound and at the plate against Chris Sale. They did that, and it’s put us in a position to build off of it now.”
The Red Sox have now noticed that they have competition in the A.L. East other than the Yankees, and the rest of the league should be on notice now too.
[Featured Image by Brian Blanco/Getty Images]