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How have the Tampa Bay Rays closed the gap so quickly on the Boston Red Sox?

James Shields was already having a superb season before he cranked it up a notch with a 2.22 ERA in his past nine starts.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

James Shields was already having a superb season before he cranked it up a notch with a 2.22 ERA in his past nine starts.

The standings do not lie. They might tease, torture or infuriate, but they do not lie.

So when the world woke up on the morning of Aug. 3 and saw the Red Sox had the best record in the American League, I think most of us would have agreed Boston was an excellent ballclub. Perhaps even, a team on its way to a World Series celebration.

That same morning, Tampa Bay was barely above .500 and struggling to stay out of fourth place. The trading deadline had just passed, and help was not on the horizon. The Rays might have had a fine starting rotation, but they were no one's idea of world beaters.

So what happened?

How did the strong become weak and the common become exceptional? How did up become down, good become bad and Boston become jealous of Tampa Bay?

Obviously, there are two sides to this story. There is the explanation in Boston of injuries to the rotation and either too much or too little panic depending on the point of view.

And then there is the version from Tampa Bay. The story of a team that puttered to a 56-52 start then streaked toward the finish at 29-15. There is no single explanation and no flip that was switched. It is a combination of factors and a case of critical mass.

Here are some of the ways the Rays have changed history:

Rookie reinforcements

It's safe to say no one has had a greater impact on the turnaround than Desmond Jennings. The rookie was called up in late July, and the Rays began winning about a week later.

Jennings has given the Rays speed, close to a .390 on-base percentage and unexpected power at the leadoff position. He also added a right-handed bat to a lefty-heavy lineup.

Tampa Bay had gotten a month's worth of highlights from Sam Fuld early in the season, but leftfield had become a huge hole until Jennings' arrival.

If the Rays do not finish chasing down the Red Sox, we will forever debate whether things would have been different if Jennings had been called up earlier.

In recent weeks, the Rays have also gotten well-timed help from rookies Brandon Guyer, Matt Moore and Brandon Gomes.

From good to great

There was no doubt starting pitching was going to be Tampa Bay's strength in 2011. The Rays would not outscore the Red Sox and would not outslug the Yankees. If the Rays were to win, it would be on the backs of their five starting pitchers.

It was not a surprise that the rotation had a good first half. What's amazing is it has gotten even better down the stretch. Jeremy Hellickson has a 2.36 ERA in his past eight starts. David Price is a little better with a 2.28 ERA in nine starts. James Shields is even better with a 2.22 ERA in nine starts.

Between pitching and defense, no AL team has given up fewer runs per game than the Rays.

A star turn

A career-low .244 batting average has left some with the impression that Evan Longoria is having a poor season. That is far from the truth.

Despite missing time with injuries in the first half, he is drawing more walks, striking out less and hitting home runs more regularly than any season of his career. Best of all, he has gotten hot when the Rays have needed him most.

Since Aug. 3, Longoria is hitting .270 with 14 home runs and 39 RBIs in 44 games. His overall numbers remain lower than expected, but he will still finish as one of the 10 most productive position players in the AL in 2011.

Casey Kotchman and Ben Zobrist have cooled in the past six weeks, but the combination of Jennings, Longoria and a resurgent B.J. Upton have helped the Rays offense average 4.61 runs per game since Aug. 3 after averaging 4.21 in the first 108 games.

Clutch, or just fortunate

At one point in early August, Longoria talked about the need to play better in close games. The Rays, he said, were letting too many winnable games slip away.

Since that Aug. 3 turnaround, the Rays are 10-4 in one-run games. At one point, the Rays were basically a .500 team in one-run games. Now they trail only Detroit in the AL with a .581 winning percentage in close games.

Will all of this add up to one of the most historic comebacks in baseball history? The odds are certainly better today than they were 12 days ago. And they're better than they were Aug. 2.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

How have the Tampa Bay Rays closed the gap so quickly on the Boston Red Sox? 09/19/11 [Last modified: Monday, September 19, 2011 9:25pm]
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