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Rays Tales: Tampa Bay Rays face difficult battle for wild card with Red Sox, Rangers

Even without Scott Kazmir, the Rays are expecting a wild September, chasing the Rangers and Red Sox in a three-part, multi-time zone battle for the final AL spot. "This is why the wild card was designed, to keep more people interested," manager Joe Maddon said. "It's going to be interesting. … The Rangers are good, Boston's good, we're good. It's going to be fun. It's going to be a fun September." A look at the 3 R's:

Texas Rangers (71-56)

Remaining games: 34 — 16 home, 18 road

Scouting report: The Rangers in many ways are this year's Rays, making an unexpected rise keyed to improved pitching and defense. The offense isn't as powerful as in years past but can still be explosive. They have some veterans but not much in the way of postseason experience. 3B Michael Young is a key. Like the Rays last year, people keep waiting for them to fold.

Schedule analysis: Only 10 games with contenders and 16 against teams currently above .500. Final seven are against Angels, who will have clinched, and Mariners, who will be out. They benefit from the six games the Rays and Red Sox have left.

What's left: A's 7, Angels 7, Mariners 6, Blue Jays 4, RAYS 3, Orioles 3, Indians 3, Twins 1

Key series: vs. Rays, Sept. 25-27

Boston Red Sox (74-54)

Remaining games: 33 — 16 home, 17 road

Scouting report: Showing signs of age and some holes in the field (shortstop) and rotation but have the best bullpen of the bunch and the deepest roster. Will be interesting to see what impact Billy Wagner has on the bullpen, good or bad. Manager Terry Francona's ability to choose the right lineup each night may be a key part of this. David "Big Papi" Ortiz could play a big role.

Schedule analysis: Pretty favorable, with 16 games against teams with losing records and 14 of their final 17 against the Orioles, Royals, Blue Jays and Indians. Their toughest stretch starts Tuesday, as they play 13 of 15 against the Rays, White Sox and Angels.

What's left: RAYS 6, Blue Jays 4, Royals 4, Indians 4, White Sox 4, Orioles 5, Yankees 3, Angels 3

Key series: at Rays, Tues.-Thurs.; vs. Rays, Sept. 11-13

Tampa Bay Rays (70-58)

Remaining games: 34 — 18 home, 16 road

Scouting report: Inconsistency has been the most consistent thing about them as the offense, starting pitching come and go. They'll need someone in the lineup — B.J. Upton? Evan Longoria? Pat Burrell? — to get hot. Trade of Scott Kazmir puts pressure on more "experienced" starters James Shields and Matt Garza. Bullpen has no room for error.

Schedule analysis: Toughest of the three, with 23 games against teams with winning records and eight vs. the O's, against whom they're only 5-5. Plus, they finish with the Yankees, who could be playing for homefield advantage. The nine with the Red Sox and Rangers are huge, one way or the other.

What's left: Orioles 8, Yankees 7, Tigers 5, RED SOX 6, RANGERS 3, Blue Jays 3, Mariners 2

Key series: vs. Red Sox, Tues.-Thurs.; at Red Sox, Sept. 11-13; at Rangers, Sept. 25-27

Rays Rumblings

The problems at the new Cowboys Stadium are drawing comparisons to the balls hitting the catwalks at the Trop. … ESPN's Jayson Stark picks A's closer Andrew Bailey for the AL rookie of the year award as of now but says Jeff Niemann "could still win this thing." …Dog days? The student commons at Western University's veterinary school (Pomona, Calif.) were named in honor of former Rays boss Vince Naimoli after a hefty contribution; daughter Lindsey goes there. … The Rays ranked just 21st in NBCsports.com's "restoring" of rosters by players' original organizations. … Rays affiliates had mixed results in Sports Business Journal's somewhat complex ranking of minor-league markets: Princeton, W. Va., was 20th, Hudson Valley 29th, Durham 69th, Port Charlotte 152nd and Montgomery 203rd. … Another chapter of 3B coach Tom Foley's Forrest Gump-like romp through MLB history: He was in one of the 19 triple plays that ended games, playing first for the Expos on Sept. 8, 1991, against the Reds. … The Rays have sent out playoff ticket info to season-ticket holders.

Expert opinions

National media on whom they expect to win the wild card and why:

Peter Gammons, ESPN

Who: Rangers

Why: Schedule

Ken Rosenthal, FOX Sports

Who: Red Sox

Why: They have the lead and best overall team.

Buster Olney, ESPN

Who: Red Sox

Why: They have an incredibly soft schedule down the stretch.

Gaku Tashiro, Sankei Sports (Japan)

Who: Red Sox

Why: Starting pitchers and closers

Gordon Edes, Yahoo

Who: Red Sox

Why: Depth of bullpen will make difference down the stretch.

Bob Nightengale, USA Today

Who: Red Sox

Why: I hate the September call-up rule, and the Red Sox have the deepest organization.

Jon Paul Morosi, Fox Sports

Who: Red Sox

Why: Victor Martinez and Tim Wakefield have big Septembers.

Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com

Who: Red Sox

Why: Easier schedule than Rays, and they're already ahead.

Off to the races

The week ahead for the wild-card contenders, easiest to hardest:

Rangers: at Twins (today), vs. Blue Jays (Mon.-Wed., including Tues. DH), at Orioles (Fri.-Sun.)

Rays: at Tigers (today-Monday), vs. Red Sox (Tues.-Thurs.), vs. Tigers (Fri.-Sun.)

Red Sox: vs. Blue Jays (today), at Rays (Tues.-Thurs.), at White Sox (Fri.-Mon.)

Rays Tales: Tampa Bay Rays face difficult battle for wild card with Red Sox, Rangers 08/29/09 [Last modified: Sunday, August 30, 2009 8:35am]

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