Best playoff matchup for Rays? Red Sox would be spiciest

Rays Tales | Recent displays by the teams could lead to an interesting backdrop for a postseason series.
Red Sox personnel were measuring and otherwise checking the Tropicana FIeld mound before the Sept. 2 game against the Rays.
Red Sox personnel were measuring and otherwise checking the Tropicana FIeld mound before the Sept. 2 game against the Rays. [ MARC TOPKIN | Times ]
Published Sept. 11, 2021

DETROIT — Assuming the Rays can survive Wander Franco’s absence, go on to win the American League East and hang on to the league’s best record, there will be plenty of talk about their potential first-round playoff opponent, which would be the winner of the wild-card game.

That there are five teams still very much in the running for the two spots — Red Sox, Yankees, Jays, A’s and Mariners — adds to the liveliness of the discussion.

The Rays’ best hope is that they can clinch the division (with a nine-game lead going into play Saturday) and top seed (seven ahead) relatively soon — possibly early in the next homestand — and relax while the wild-card teams battle until the very end. Even better from their view: a tiebreaker game or two, exhausting their foes’ top pitchers.

While the Rays have their worst record against the Mariners (1-6), they would seem the least intimidating opponent in a best-of-five division series. The Rays were 3-4 against the A’s, against whom they always seem to play close games, and 11-8 against the Red Sox. They are 8-5 against the Jays, with six still to play over a 10-day span starting Monday.

And they are 9-7 with a season-ending three-game series looming against the Yankees, who despite their woes still appear the best overall team of the five. There would be some rich drama for the Rays to go into New York on Oct. 1-3 with the chance to knock out the Yankees.

But the spiciest rivalry might be with the Red Sox.

During the Sox’s last visit to the Trop, they made a show after one game and before the next of measuring the mound, suggesting it was higher than allowed, which it isn’t. Manager Alex Cora, who was suspended for his role in the Astros’ sign-stealing scheme as a coach, claimed to not know anything about it. (That the Sox are run by former longtime Rays executive Chaim Bloom should have made the mound issue clear, one way or another.)

Then during Wednesday’s regular-season finale in Boston, the Sox’s radio and TV crews made repeated on-air claims that Rays manager Kevin Cash was gaming the system by removing Matt Wisler after one batter rather than the required minimum three. The postgame radio host stirred it up further, touting a segment on the latest of “Kevin Cash’s antics.”

Wisler was just back from the injured list and had a recurrence of the same finger issue that had sidelined him, and switching to JT Chargois over a healthy Wisler would have been a downgrade, but apparently that didn’t matter.

But the Rays had their fun also.

While they didn’t go as far as measuring the height or distance from home of the Green Monster wall — both of which are occasional subjects of conversation — they did conveniently break out a new strategy: the intentional balk.

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Which, more than anything else, was devised to prevent sign stealing. (Hmmm.)

Collin McHugh’s not-at-all disguised fake throw to third base at the start of the 10th inning Monday was very much by design, allowing Jonathan Arauz, who was the runner on second to begin the inning, to move up to third.

Field coordinator Paul Hoover had pitched the idea previously for extra-inning situations with the Rays leading by two or more, and pitching coach Kyle Snyder said Monday it just seemed like the right time and place to break it out. (Hmmm.)

Their thinking was that there was little downside; Arauz’s run would only matter if another Red Sox player got on and scored, and there were two benefits: allowing McHugh to work from the windup and, more importantly, eliminating the possibility for a runner on second to relay pitch information to the hitter. (Hmmm.)

“Given where offenses (are) in today’s nature of the game, whatever advantages that are out there for you to be able to see, I mean, people are going to try to take advantage of that stuff,” Snyder said.

“So it’s our job to kind of defend against it to the degree that we can. …. It’s an easy thing in extra innings for a pitcher, if we’re up two, to say that run is not theirs, and essentially operate as if that guy’s not even there. It makes no difference. For me, that guy doesn’t even matter. I know Collin is a little bit different with the experience he has beneath him, but we just asked him and he said, ‘For sure.’ ”

Rays rumblings

Kudos to the Rays for cutting the price of some tickets to $10 and offering concession specials during the final 10-game regular-season homestand that starts Thursday. The move is an attempt to get more fans in to create a better atmosphere for the players, especially with the chance to clinch both a playoff berth and the East title. … As unlikely as it would have seemed at the time of his May acquisition from the Brewers, Drew Rasmussen appears to be a certainty for the Rays’ postseason rotation, likely with rookies Shane McClanahan and Luis Patino. … Announcing Erik Neander’s previously agreed to contract extension and promotion from general manager to president of baseball operations seemed clear messaging by the Rays to other teams, such as the Mets, to not even bother thinking about hiring him. … Classy move by Derek Jeter to thank former Yankees and current Rays player development executive Mitch Lukevics, plus former Rays exec Bill Livesey and the late, great Don Zimmer in his Hall of Fame induction speech. … First base coach Ozzie Timmons wouldn’t share details, but said reliever David Robertson did him right in taking his No. 30 (with Timmons switching to No. 40): “We worked it out.” Presumably for less than the Rolex watch Nelson Cruz bought pitching coach Kyle Snyder for taking his No. 23. ... Outfielder Josh Lowe got the balls from his first plate appearance in the majors (a walk) and first hit. … In 23 games since joining Derek Shelton’s Pirates, ex-Ray Yoshi Tsutsugo has seven homers, 15 RBIs, a .288 average and a 1.104 OPS.

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