Rays' recent surge has East lead in sight

Rays' recent surge has East lead in sight

Published Aug. 24, 2012 11:08 a.m. ET

Now it’s really getting interesting, folks.

Forget the Wild Card race. The American League East standings suddenly tell the story of battle for the division title between the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays. Who’d have imagined that?

Well, maybe ever-optimistic Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon, who always keeps his team believing in the possibilities, too.

Five weeks ago, the Rays had fallen to fourth place in the division, 10.5 games behind New York. Today, only 2.5 games separate the first-place Yanks and second-place Rays following Alex Cobb’s first career shutout Thursday night: a 5-0 victory over the visiting Oakland A’s and yet another dominant pitching performance by baseball’s best staff.

It’s been quite a month. In fact, in the last 36 days, they’ve made up eight games on New York, going 23-10 since July 19 to pull within striking distance of the East lead.

As the Yankees began to stumble with injuries — losing such lynchpins as ace CC Sabathia and third baseman Alex Rodriguez to the disabled list — Tampa Bay gradually began to get healthy for the first time all season.

And fueled by their off-the-charts pitching, along with a recently revived offense keyed by the return of players like Evan Longoria and Sam Fuld, the Rays are making a head-turning charge reminiscent of their surge to the postseason last September.

Thursday’s win carried extra significance in that it knocked back Oakland in the Wild Card derby, pushing the A’s 2.5 games behind them and into a three-way tie with Baltimore and Detroit at 67-57. The Rays, meanwhile, improved to a season-best 15 games over .500 at 70-55 with their 14th win in the past 17 games. The Yankees, who didn’t play Thursday, stand at 72-52.

“We realize we have a couple more games against (the A’s),” outfielder Matt Joyce said. “We can’t ever let up on a team like that. A win is a win, and we will always take a W, especially against a team that you are battling against for the Wild Card, but at the same time we have are sights set a little higher. We want to catch the Yankees. We still have a lot of baseball to be played, but I think we are playing well now and we just need to keep going.”

The Rays have certainly kept it going in August — a major-league best 16-5 in this month and 7-1 since being on the wrong end of a perfect game thrown by Felix Hernandez on Aug. 15.

And they’ll try to stay on track Friday at 7:10 p.m., when rookie southpaw Matt Moore (10-7 with a 3.57) faces righthander Jarrod Parker (8-7, 3.48). After a 1-5 start this season, Moore has gone 9-2 in his last 11 decisions and played a big role in Tampa Bay’s overwhelming pitching success this season. They lead the American League with a 3.24 ERA (trailing only the Washington Nationals by 0.01).

Here’s something to ponder about that: The last four AL teams to finish a season with an ERA that low all wound up in the World Series (the A’s in 1990 at 3.18, the 1989 A’s at 3,09, 1981 Yankees at 2.90 and 1978 Yankees at 3.18).  

The latest man of the hour, of course, was Cobb. When we last saw him, the 24-year-old right-hander was getting shelled in Anaheim by the Angels, knocked out of the game after 2.2 innings with 12 hits and an eight-run deficit. The Rays staged a stunning comeback to win that game 10-8 in one of the key moments of their recent surge. And Thursday night at the Trop, it was Cobb’s turn to do the same.

Exhibiting superb command of his fastball from the start, hitting the corners consistently and mixing in a mean curve, Cobb pitched the first shutout of his career, a four-hitter that kept the A’s off-balance all night.

“Just shut down tonight,” Oakland manager Bob Melvin said. “We just couldn’t figure him out tonight. He was throwing chase-fastballs to us. Every time we were looking for a fastball, he threw a breaking ball, and every time we were looking for a breaking ball he threw a fastball, so he was pretty unpredictable tonight.”

Maddon, known for pulling pitchers late even with a shutout in the making, wanted to let Cobb go the distance for positive reinforcement. Even when he walked the first batter in the ninth, and glanced toward Maddon in the dugout, Cobb stayed on the mound. He got a well-timed double-play to erase the walk and struck out cleanup hitter Yoenis Cespedes looking to end it.

“I’ve always believed that when you get a young pitcher that can go nine, and throw a complete game, and then furthermore make it a shutout, there’s something good to be derived from that normally,” Maddon said. “Especially after coming off the game that he just had, where it was such a difficult game in Anaheim, to flip it and do this. … (That makes) four seven-inning appearances in a row for him, prior to the Anaheim outing, and then he does this. That’s good for him to know that he can do something like that.”

Cobb’s smile on the mound in the post-game victory celebration told the story — even when Moore inadvertently slammed into him during a body-jumping celebration and sent him sprawling on the mound. Later, Cobb described the shutout as a way of expressing his gratitude.

“That is a thank you to the team and the bullpen especially,” he said. “They had to carry me through six-innings (last start). It felt good to give them a break.”

In truth, the Anaheim debacle was an aberration for him. He’s now pitched seven or more innings in five of his last six starts and allowed one run or less in four of those games, raising his record to 4-0 this month.

The Yankees are no doubt feeling the heat now, having been swept in three by the White Sox. But life could be improving. They face the reeling Indians, 54-70 and losers of eight straight, Friday in Cleveland and then play struggling Toronto (58-68 and losers of five in a row).

In addition, they regain the services Sabathia today. The former Cleveland hurler spent 15 days on the DL with a sore elbow and is scheduled to pitch tonight against his former team. New York expects to have Rodriguez back from the DL in September.

The Rays, meanwhile, will hit the road next week after a rare Sunday off to play three against AL Central-leader Texas and three in Toronto. They’ll return home for a three-game series you’ll want to circle on the schedule: Rays-Yankees, Sept. 3-5.

And depending on how the next 10 days go, that’s when things could get interesting indeed.