ST. PETERSBURG — With nine games left on the Rays’ regular-season schedule, and the very real possibility to make the playoffs for the first time since 2013, here are nine things we think we know:
It will go down to the final weekend
The Rays “magic number” to clinch a spot in the wild-card game by eliminating the Indians is 10, the needed combination of Tampa Bay wins and Cleveland losses. (The Indians won Thursday, tying the Rays for the second wild-card at 90-63, two games behind the A’s.) Even in a best case, or worst case, scenario, it would take six more days, so until Wednesday, for that race to be decided. And that would be with one team winning all its games and the other losing all its game. Barring that extreme, and with the Indians off Monday and the Rays off Thursday, the more realistic scenario is this being settled — bottles popped or dreams shattered — in Toronto.
Rays will have earned their spot
Compared to the other two wild-card prospects, the Rays have by far the toughest schedule. Their opponents’ win percentage calculated by fangraphs.com is .535; the Indians are .483 and A’s .441. The Rays, starting Friday, have four games with the Red Sox, who didn’t do much for an encore after winning the last World Series, but may find some energy in making things tough on their division foes. Then two with the Yankees, who will have already clinched the AL East but are still playing for potential homefield advantage in the ALCS and World Series. And three to finish at Toronto, making for the odd circumstance of one of the longest-serving Rays staffers, Charlie Montoyo, being in position as manager of the Jays to spoil their chances.
Chances slightly better than 50-50
Based on the average at four leading and publicly available websites, the Rays, after their impressive 8-7 11-inning win over the Dodgers, have a 56.85 percent chance to make the playoffs. That’s better than what baseball-reference.com, fangraphs.com. fivethirtyeight.com and espn.com project for the Indians, who average out at 46.9. The A’s are considered a near lock at 96.6 percent.
Right players are hot
Playoff-chasing and postseason games can produce the occasional unheralded star. But for the most part, teams at this time of year need their best players to be their best players. And the Rays are getting a lot of that, starting with Austin Meadows, who is hitting .407 with eight homers and 19 RBIs on a career-best 16-game hitting streak. Tommy Pham, who had five hits Wednesday, is hitting .351 since Sept. 1. Ji-Man Choi has become an on-base machine. Travis d’Arnaud continues to deliver clutch hits and runs. Willy Adames is hitting .300 over the past two-plus weeks and playing strong defense at short. Closer Emilio Pagan is pitching with confidence.
Pitching will be key
Starters Charlie Morton and Ryan Yarbrough are no longer alone, as Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell have come back after lengthy injury absences, and Yonny Chirinos is set to join them. The names look good, but with the returnees requiring special handling due to workload restrictions, the Rays still have to do matchup-oriented juggling with relievers. Manager Kevin Cash doesn’t like set bullpen roles, but it seems pretty clear who the Rays are going to count on most: Pagan to close, Nick Anderson for high-leverage set-up work, Oliver Drake for spot duty that includes tough lefties, Chaz Roe to get out a righty in a key moment. Of lesser responsibility, but higher concern given their inconsistencies, are rookies Colin Poche and Pete Fairbanks and second-year man Diego Castillo.
Unfazed by pressure
A handful of Rays have been through playoff chases before, but for most this is their first experience with the pressure, spotlight and scrutiny. Though Pham has hinted at an occasional lack of urgency in playing for the moment, Cash and other veterans seem pleased with how the situation is being handled. One of the biggest concerns is that players feel the need to try to do things differently rather than what’s gotten them to this point.
Expect more unpopular decisions from Cash
The Rays do things differently, usually on purpose and with extensive research. But Cash is the one who gets blamed when a bullpen move doesn’t work, a hit rolls through the shift or a changed lineup fails to produce. No manager is always right, and Cash has made some odd moves. But he is typically consistent in his decisions and well-reasoned, usually based on matchups or workload. Also, there is a difference between making the right move but having it go wrong because a player or pitcher doesn’t do the job he reasonably can be counted on to handle, such as Colin Poche walking the first batter and hitting the second on Tuesday. Also, they have won 90 games already.
There are reasons for concern
Kevin Kiermaier has been struggling since coming back from his latest injury, and as much as his defense adds, the Rays need something from him offensively. Charlie Morton is pitching more at age 35 than he ever has, and hasn’t been as sharp recently. Glasnow, Snell and Chirinos can’t be counted on to be back to top form. Simple and sometimes common mistakes, such as walks by relievers and bad baserunning decisions, will be magnified.
Oakland is lovely this time of year
With the A’s holding a two-game lead for the top spot, the easier schedule, and the head-to-head tiebreaker, it would seem more likely if the Rays make it that they end up going west. If the A’s finish 5-4, for example, the Rays would have to go 8-1 to avoid a trip to Oakland. It’s an odd place to play given the football-friendly configuration, and the 5 p.m. California time start would lead to some odd shadows. Plus, the Rays’ 32-60 record there is their worst of any current AL park. But on the plus side, they are 7-4 the past three years, including 2-2 this year.
Contact Marc Topkin at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.