As the dust settles in the American League East, the Tampa Bay Rays still sit first place in the division and four of five teams are within 2.5 wins. The division spent the week leading into interleague play facing itself, and no team can be declared out of the race just yet.
Tampa Bay Rays (25-19) - Division Leader
3 Game Series vs. Baltimore: 1 win, 2 losses
2 Game Series vs. New York: 1 win, 1 loss
2 Game Series @ Toronto: 1 win, 1 loss
The Rays head into interleague play with a very small lead. One game. In a division with plagued pitching, the Rays have kept a 6th best ERA and 3rd best WHIP in the majors, even with a starter on the disabled list. Opponents bat a mere .237 against Rays pitchers and the bullpen has performed miles beyond expectation. The Rays will welcome back former closer J.P. Howell tonight to add a second lefty to the bullpen, a hot commodity in the AL East. The back of the Rays bullpen has emerged as one of the best in the majors. A 7-8-9 of Howell or Cruz, Peralta, and Farnsworth could outperform all other teams in the East.
Tampa's problem is not pitching. It's scoring runs. The Rays have lost only four on the road but fifteen at home. The Rays are tenth overall in runs scored, but the team batting average remains sub par (.244). When they do make contact, the power is there - the team is eleventh overall with a .404 slugging percent - but their on base percentage is 24th in the big leagues. In other words, the Rays don't seem to get on base, but if they can hit the ball it will go pretty far. This doesn't explain the slump at home, but for a team that values statistics that is not an ideal strategy. So far it's garnered wins. If the stellar rotation can continue to pitch low scoring games, the Rays will succeed.
New York Yankees (23-19) - 1.0 Games Back
3 Game Series vs. Boston: 3 losses
2 Game Series @ Tampa Bay: 1 win, 1 loss
2 Game Series @ Baltimore: 2 wins
The Yankees are heavy hitters. At the plate New York is first in slugging (.446), third in on base percentage (.337) and third in runs scored. The team batting average is only .254, but they make up for it with power to score runs and win games. The bullpen is in shambles, but the uprising of David Robinson, the persistency of Joba Chamberlain, and the lights out cutter of Mariano Rivera will be enough to win close games.
New York's starting rotation is an ace (CC Sabathia), a rookie (Ivan Nova), and three has-beens that continue to pitch at a major league level (Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, A.J. Burnett). The rotation is 13th in ERA (3.66), but 20th in WHIP (1.33). In other words, the Yankees let a lot of men on base but get the runners home more often than the other team. Not the potent threat of years past, but still a menace to be reckoned with.
Boston Red Sox (23-20) - 1.5 Games Back
2 Game Series @ Toronto: 2 losses
3 Game Series @ New York: 3 wins
2 Game Series vs. Baltimore: 1 win, 1 postponed
Boston achieved a winning record for the first time this season on Monday. The team started the season painfully slow, not much unlike the Rays, but has a pitching rotation that has been abismal. The team is 25th in ERA (4.20), 22nd in WHIP (1.34) and has less quality starts than New York. With starters Lackey and Matsuzaka and relievers Bobby Jenks and Dan Wheeler on the disabled list, Boston enlisted the help of the thought-to-be-retired Kevin Milwood and began a trade for lefty reliever Franklin Morales from the Rockies this week.
The offense has been the key to Boston's rise. The men get on base, fifth best in the majors at .336. Coupled with a slugging percent of .405 and a batting average of .258, the team's offense sounds like a blend of the strengths of New York and Tampa Bay. The back of the bullpen still poses a threat with Bard and Papelbon, but if Boston continues to use relievers like Okajima and Wakefield, most opposing teams will have no problem scoring runs - leaving Boston to play the New York game of catch up: give up runs, try to score more.
Toronto Blue Jays (22-21) - 2.5 Games Back
2 Game Series vs. Boston: 2 wins
2 Game Series vs. Tampa Bay: 1 win, 1 loss
Prior to last week, the Jays took only 1 of 3 from the Rays and Yankees in the beginning of May.
On paper, the Jays are a fantastic team. Ninth overall getting on base (.327), sixth in slugging (.411) and sixth in runs scored. Not to mention a guy named Jose Bautista. The pitching staff has been league average at a 3.80 ERA and has held opposing batters to a mere .240 batting average. Where are they going wrong? They aren't. Two and a half games is easy to overcome. If interleague play rocks the East, the Jays could be on top by the end of next week.
If we're being knit-picky the Jays have relied heavily on their bullpen as starters have only made seven innings in 19 games this season, and errors have been quite high - 31 on the season. The Orioles have 24, the Rays only 17. That said, if Jays can start running on all cylinders they are a real threat to the entire division.
Baltimore Orioles (19-23) - 5.0 Games Back
3 Game Series @ Tampa Bay: 2 wins, 1 loss
2 Game Series @ Boston: 1 loss, 1 postponed
2 Game Series vs. New York: 2 losses
After the first week of the season the Orioles had the best record in the AL East, and now they sit five games back. This is not the end of the world. A week of consistent pitching could bolster them to the top of the division. The season is long and every team hits dry patches, but while the Orioles may be in a dry spell, the pitching rotation could be in a drought. Like the Yankees they have an ace (Guthrie), a rookie (Britton), and three duds. The team's pitching is 26th in ERA and 25th in WHIP and the bullpen isn't necessarily to be feared. (Kevin Gregg, anyone?)
The batting remains below average as well. The combination of expiring hitters (Vladimir Guerro, Derrek Lee, Mark Reynolds, J.J. Hardy) has not paid off and the team is batting .246 with only 166 runs scored on the season (22nd overall), 17th getting on base (.314) and 19th in slugging (.376). The bats need to come alive, key players need to return from the disabled list and the pitching needs to step up to the challenge. Unfortunately, to finish the next two months will be no less easy as they face Washington, Kansas City, Oakland, Seattle, Toronto, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and St. Louis.