It is a six-game stretch that could determine their shot at the postseason.
The Tampa Bay Rays will spend this week chasing the two teams they trail in the AL East race, with each of those opponents also representing a possible roadblock to a wild-card berth.
Grab the remote control and settle back on the couch, though chances are youll also be on your feet and pacing considering the stakes.
The Rays next-to-last road trip of the season with a three-game series starting tonight against the Orioles, followed by a three-game set against the Yankees represents both a risk and potential reward.
They trail New York by two games and Baltimore by one with 22 remaining. So they can ill afford to fall too far off the pace at this point, without forcing them to make a mad dash at the end similar to last September.
On the other hand, going head-to-head against Baltimore and New York gives the Rays an opening to substantially improve their position heading into home stretch.
It certainly beats last weeks dynamic when they couldnt make up much ground on either team as the Os and Yankees were busy splitting a four-game series at Camden Yards.
This is an opportunity and it comes at a time the Rays have found footing again. Following a rough stretch from Aug. 24-31 when the team suddenly went cold with a 2-6 streak, Tampa Bay has bounced back with a 6-2 run. And that includes taking two of three games from the East-leading Yankees and another two of three from AL West front-runner Texas.
And they come into tonights 7:05 p.m. game against the Os off a dominant win over the Rangers that 6-0 decision Sunday powered by B.J. Uptons three home runs and James Shields masterful two-hit shutout. Throw in a day off on Monday and the Rays should be rested when rookie Matt Moore (10-9, 3.56 ERA) takes the mound against former Rays righty Jason Hammel (8-6, 3.46).
The Orioles, on the other hand, were pounded in their last outing, a 13-3 loss to the Yankees. And they know have to go the distance without arguably their most important player, standout leadoff man and stellar rightfielder Nick Markakis. He was hit in the hand Saturday by a pitch thrown by CC Sabathia and suffered a broken left thumb, knocking him out of action for at least six weeks.
Thats a devastating blow for the Birds similar to what the loss of Evan Longoria meant this season to Tampa Bay. Markakis is hitting .298 with 28 doubles, three triples, 13 homers and 54 RBI and won a Gold Glove last season for his play in right. Just as the Rays played sub-.500 ball with Longoria (41-45) on the disabled list with his torn hamstring, Baltimore was 16-19 from May 30-July 8 when Markakis was lost with a broken bone in his right hand.
When he returned, the Orioles got hot again, rolling to a record of 33-21 through Saturdays 5-4 win over the Yankees. Without him, they hit .240 and averaged 4.13 runs per game. Since his return, the team has raised its batting average to .255 and 4.67 runs per game.
Elevated to the leadoff spot, Markakis was hitting .335 with 34 runs and 28 RBI before getting hit by Sabathia who, as youll recall, shattered Carlos Penas left hand on Labor Day 2009 when Pena was leading the AL in homers with 39. Pena has never matched his power output since then.
Markakis has been a big reason for Baltimores uncanny success in one-run games this season (the mirror opposite of the Rays) providing a spark that has helped his team post a 25-7 mark, including a streak of 13 straight one-run wins that ended Sept. 1.
Of course, the loss of Markakis from the lineup doesnt mean the Rays will have an easy go of it in Baltimore. The Orioles have been the surprise team of the American League and consistently defied all the naysayers who have predicted for months that theyll fade. Under the guidance of manager Buck Showalter, Baltimore boasts one of the best records in the majors since July 26 at 25-13 and is within striking distance of its first postseason appearance since 1997.
The Os have a power-laden lineup, having hit 18 homers in September alone, tying them with the ever-dangerous Rangers. Mark Reynolds (21 homers) is on a .323 run with seven of his 21 homers in the last nine games. Centerfielder Adam Jones is hitting .333 this month with three of his 29 homers. And Nate McClouth could prove a respectable fill-in for Markakis, hitting .321 (9-for-28) in his last eight games.
The pitching staff also looks far better than it did at the start of the season. Gone from the rotation are Jake Arrieta, Tommy Hunter and Brian Matsusz, all working now from the bullpen. Hammel returned from the disabled list Thursday and pitched five impressive innings, allowing one earned run in a 10-6 win over the Yankees. The now six-man rotation is rounded out by Wei-Yu Chen (12-9, 4.06), Joe Saunders (2-1, 4.24), Zach Britton (5-2, 4.27), Miguel Gonzalez (6-4, 3.62) and Chris Tillman (7-2, 3.39).
The strong bullpen features Jim Johnson, tied with Tampa Bays Fernando Rodney for the AL saves lead at 42. Darren ODay and Pedro Strop have also been superb with respective marks of 7-1, 2.22 and 5-2, 2.26.
The Rays have been on a similar roll. Theyve won 21 of 32 are 26-14 in their last 30 games a virtual dead heat with the Orioles. That run has helped them make up 8.5 games on the Yankees since July 18. And while their offense has been on-again, off-again, their pitching has been incomparable the best in baseball with an ERA of 3.22. The last four teams to boast an ERA as low as that have all advanced to the World Series.
The starting matchups for the rest of the series: Wednesday night, Alex Cob (9-8, 4.28) vs. Miguel Gonzalez; Thursday night, Jeremy Hellickson (8-10, 3.33) vs. a starter yet to be named.
Right now, though, the Rays are in a battle simply to nab one of two wild-card spots. At 77-63, they trail Baltimore (78-62) by a game for the second spot and Oakland (80-60) by three games for the first one. But the Angels, who were swept in four games last month in Anaheim, have climbed right back into the picture with an 8-2 run. That leaves them only a half-game behind Tampa Bay at 77-64.
Theres another kind of wildcard in this whole picture, too: the reeling Boston Red Sox. Decimated by injuries and divisiveness under manager Bobby Valentine, the Sox are dead last in the AL East at 63-76, 16.5 games behind New York. The one thing they have left to play for is spoiling the seasons for their East rivals.
On paper, the Rays should be able to handle Boston in a four-game series that awaits them next week after this road trip. And they play two more games at Fenway the following week. Meanwhile, Boston hosts the Yankees in a three-game home series starting tonight, and hosts Baltimore for three games Sept. 21-23.
Its not clear whether the Sox have enough gas left in the tank to give any team a particularly hard time down the stretch. But theyll be highly motivated to do so, and could play a role in determining the division race between the Yanks, Os and Rays.
Meanwhile, circle Oct. 1-3 on your calendar. The final three days of the regular season will feature a showdown between Baltimore and Tampa Bay at the Trop. And just like last year, its possible the Rays postseason hopes could come down to the final home series even another Game 162.
Its a 22-game season that starts tonight.