Saturday, December 16, 2017
Tampa Bay Rays

Wide-open AL East race keeps Rays in chase

MINNEAPOLIS — Despite looking up from at or near the bottom of the American League East standings for the past three months, Rays manager Joe Maddon continues to push, preach and proselytize about how the race remains wide open for all five teams and is likely to come down to the final weeks, even days, of the season.

Turns out, the view from above isn't much different.

"No team is out of it," said Adam Jones, centerfielder for the Orioles team currently perched atop the division. "I think that's where you've got to start, that no team is out of it. And you're a winning streak away from being right in it."

First, because the race is close. The 9½ games between the Orioles and the Rays and Red Sox is the smallest spread in baseball's six divisions; all five teams have had a turn at the top; and the remaining schedule is laden with intradivisional series.

Second, because none of the teams looks to be very good. There are big enough questions about each AL East squad to create the potential for a wild finish — though rather than a typical sprint through September, it may be more of a stumble, less of a classic duel and more a battle of attrition between flawed squads to see who survives.

"There's a lot of teams that have an opportunity," Yankees captain Derek Jeter said, diplomatically as always. "The interesting thing is that we all play each other pretty much the last two months of the season. … So it should be fun and exciting."

The talk around the All-Star Game was as much about who has the best chance to win — and might be most affected by deals before the July 31 trade deadline — as who might be least worst.

Consider:

• The Orioles have a four-game lead and the bats that most other teams are lacking but have some concerns about their starting pitching and a brutal schedule when play resumes Friday.

• The Blue Jays, who led by six games six weeks ago, have seen their offense stripped by injuries to Edwin Encarnacion, Brett Lawrie and Adam Lind and their pitching cool off.

• The Yankees' bid to hang in with a piecemeal lineup and patchwork rotation may end with the injury to ace Masahiro Tanaka.

• The Rays, after struggling for months due to inconsistent play and injuries, have improved but still have a lot of ground to make up, and the specter of trading ace David Price and others.

• The Red Sox, similarly, have been underachieving for months but also have the talent — if not traded — to get on a serious roll.

"I think really it's pretty open," Sox ace Jon Lester said. "Toronto tried there for a little while to pull away — not to say they're not going to play better than they are right now — but it seems like a team will start playing well for a week, two weeks, three weeks and all of a sudden somebody gets hurt and it kind of comes back to where it was.

"You look at the standings and you feel like you're a ways out, but you know internally you still have a chance, especially in that division. We beat up on each other so much, anything can happen."

While optimistic about the Rays' chances, ace David Price said he considers the Orioles the biggest threat given the depth of their lineup. Plus, if general manager Dan Duquette wants to and has permission, the opportunity to add pitching in some form will present itself in the next two weeks.

But, the Birds come out of the break with a significant test, playing their first 29 games against teams .500 or better. They start with a 10-game venture west to face the A's, Angels and Mariners, who have three of the league's top five records.

"They made it a tough road for us," Jones said. "And we love it. Bring on the challenge."

The Jays lost 10 games in the standings in losing 23 of their past 34 games, and their hope depends on reinforcements, either getting their injured players back or getting new ones.

"I don't know if everybody's in it, but we're close, four games back," slugger Jose Bautista said. "If we get back to playing the way we were the first two months of the season and we get the people that are hurt back on the field, we should be good for the last two months of the season."

The Yankees and Red Sox — and of course the Rays — feel confident, to varying degrees, as well.

Maybe it's a sign of parity, with all the teams just being more equal, and similarly thinned by injuries. Or maybe it's more parity, with the very real possibility that the champion of the once-mighty AL East — so often revered as baseball's most stacked division — may have only 80-something wins and be its only team to get to the postseason.

In either case, or any case, it should be interesting.

Contact Marc Topkin at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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