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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Tuesday, August 28, 2012 at 12:39 PM

Just a few days ago, the Tampa Bay Rays were the talk of baseball. This red-hot team had not only firmly established itself as a Wildcard favorite once the offense started scoring…but they had moved within three games of the New York Yankees for first place in the AL East.

Tampa Bay wasn’t just in great shape to make the playoffs. They now had a chance to earn an automatic bid in the AL’s Final Four by chasing down the aging and injured Yankees. There’s a huge difference between being a Wildcard (a one-game coin flip just to survive) and a division winner (you’re guaranteed at least a best of five series). Things were looking up dramatically for a Tampa Bay team that had been in danger of drifting all the way out of the playoff race.

Unfortunately for their sake, the Rays ran into two teams who were just as motivated as they were to win pennant race games. Oakland took the final two games of a three-game set in Tampa Bay last weekend. Texas won the first game of a three-game set in Arlington Monday Night. That was three straight losses for the Rays, who blew a great opportunity to move up on a Yankees team that had dropped two of three itself.

Instead, Tampa Bay enters tonight’s game at Texas in THIRD place in the AL East because Baltimore starting winning again.

 

AL EAST

NY Yankees 74-54

Baltimore 70-57 (3.5 games back)

Tampa Bay 70-58 (4 games back)

It’s possible for two teams from the same division to earn Wildcards. Maybe we’re destined to see Baltimore and Tampa Bay in that coin flip game. Let’s check the Wildcard standings heading into tonight:

 

AL WILDCARD RACE (two spots available)

Oakland 79-57

Baltimore 70-57

Tampa Bay 70-58 (a half game back)

Detroit 69-58 (1 game back)

LA Angels 66-62

If the season ended this minute…then Tampa Bay would be on the outside looking in. That’s how tight the race is now…and things could actually get TIGHTER because Detroit has the easiest schedule of the bunch. EVERY GAME MATTERS! Let’s see how that looms over Tampa Bay’s game in Texas tonight.

 

TAMPA BAY at TEXAS

Scheduled Pitchers: James Shields and Yu Darvish

That’s a marquee pitching matchup. Though, Tampa Bay has so many strong arms that this team plays a lot of those. Let’s run the full season numbers…

SEASONAL STATS

Shields: 4.01 ERA and 1.29 WHIP

Darvish: 4.51 ERA and 1.42 WHIP

At first glance that’s an edge to Shields. But, these pitchers have to deal with very dissimilar home ballparks. If Shields had to pitch half his games in Arlington, his ERA and WHIP would be much higher. You saw Price have trouble in the great hitting conditions in Monday Night’s loss. Those are basically two similar pitchers once you adjust for ballpark effects.

That being said…check this out…

RECENT FORM

Shields: 2.15 ERA and 0.66 WHIP his last 5 starts

Darvish: 6.60 ERA and 1.56 WHIP his last 7 starts

Darvish was allowed to miss a turn in the rotation because things had gotten so bad. Maybe that will help him refresh. Or, maybe he’s been so worn down by the Texas heat (not something that growing up in Japan would prepare you for) that he’s going to be a struggling pitcher the rest of the season.

Shields has really zoned in of late…and has just been DOMINANT on the hill. You don’t often see a WHIP that low over a sampling of more than four games. Opponents have had big troubles just getting people on base.

So, if recent form holds, Tampa Bay will be in good shape to get back in the win column. But, if they peaked too early during their recent surge…we may be in the early stages of a ball back to earth that will see them drifting out of the playoff picture.

Handicappers should monitor this game VERY closely because of what’s at stake for the Rays (the playoffs), the Rangers (#1 seed in the AL), Shields (can he keep up this high level of pitching), and Darvish (is he done for 2012?). What analysts learn tonight could have far-reaching effects that will ripple throughout September, and maybe even the playoffs themselves. Yes, Chicago White Sox-Baltimore is important, and St. Louis-Pittsburgh is a battle for survival over in the National League. Tampa Bay-Texas because of this particular pitching matchup should be at the top of your list for study on the terrific Tuesday card.

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