--By Josh Kipnis
With October right around the corner, who are the most feared teams in the MLB? Surprising to most, the Yankees and the Phillies aren’t at the top of my list. In fact, the two hottest teams might not even make the playoffs.
The Tampa Bay Rays and St. Louis Cardinals are on fire right now. The Cardinals have won ten of their last twelve games, while the Rays are almost as hot, winning eight of their last eleven. Still, both teams remain in second in their wild-card races. So the question remains, do these two teams have enough magic in their wands to break into the playoff picture?
Tampa Bay Rays
On September 3, the Tampa Bay Rays were nine games behind the Boston Red Sox in the AL wild-card race. Amazingly, the Rays have cut that down to a miniscule two; leaving people to wonder what manager Joe Maddon is sneaking into the Gatorade cooler.
Pitching: The Rays pitching staff has been solid all year long, ranked first in the American League in ERA. Right-hander James Shields, 15-11, has been a vital arm in their rotation, throwing an ML-leading eleven complete games. The biggest surprise this year has been rookie Jeremy Helickson, 13-10. The frontrunner for AL-Rookie of the Year, he ranks 5th in the AL with a 2.91 ERA. With three other double-digit winners completing the Rays’ rotation, opponents are lucky to get a hit, let alone a run.
Hitting: For the majority of the season the Rays have ranked 15th in the MLB in runs scored. In the month of September, however, Tampa Bay has jumped all the way to 6th. After struggling in the first half of the season, Evan Longoria leads the team with 28 HR and 92 RBI. Commenting on his recent performance, “No matter if you’re hitting .300 with 20 home runs, whatever it is at that point, you always want more.” It seems as if the entire team has adopted this attitude.
Upcoming Schedule: While everything, and I mean everything, has been going the Rays’ way lately, the final ten games of the season could very well turn for the worse. They have shifted into the 6th gear in September, but unfortunately there is a towering pinstripe wall just up the road. The Rays will have to face the New York Yankees seven out of their last ten games. The Yankees lead the season series 6-5.
With their hands full in the Bronx, the Rays are also going to need the Red Sox to continue their monumental struggle. Unfortunately for them, of Boston’s final ten games, seven are against the Baltimore Orioles. Sticking with the car analogy, it’s as if the Orioles are a 15-year old driver’s ed student, while the Rays sit in the passenger seat, bracing themselves to hit ongoing traffic.
Prediction: It is going to be too little, too late for the surging Rays. The Rays could very well take five or six games from the Yankees, but at this point it isn’t in their hands. The Red Sox are up 9-4 in their season series with the Orioles. Expect them to continue that success and take some built up stress out on Baltimore. If the schedule were different, I could find a way to say the Rays will do it, but the Orioles just don’t have it in them.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals find themselves just 2.5 games behind the Atlanta Braves in the NL wild-card race. The Cardinals have won their last four series’, three of which are against playoff-caliber teams. The Red (Hot) Birds took two of three from the NL-Central leading Brewers, swept a three game series against the Braves, and won three of four against the best team in baseball in the Philadelphia Phillies. Any team that can do that much damage, yikes.
Hitting: Although Albert Pujols had a shaky start to the season, he still has a chance to hit .300, 100 RBI, and 30 HR; it would be the 11th straight season putting up those numbers (Can you say machine?). While Berkman and Holliday have each cooled down, the Cardinals are still ranked in the top 6 in the league in runs scored, average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. Not enough for you, check out their past two performances; they scored four runs on both Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels.
Bullpen: The only aspect of their game worth improving upon right now is their bullpen. Still struggling to find the right man to close out their games, the Cardinals are 3rd in the MLB in blown saves with 25.
Upcoming Schedule: With nine remaining games on their schedule, the Cardinals get to play six more in St. Louis. Not only that, but they are against the New York Mets and Chicago Cubs. The Cardinals final series of the season is against the Houston Astros who sit at the very bottom of the NL-Central.
The Braves next five games look just as easy as the Cardinals’, but they are all on the road as they face the Florida Marlins two more times and the Washington Nationals in a three game series. The final three games of their season are against the Philadelphia Phillies, who are up on the Braves in the season series 6-9.
Prediction: The Braves seem as if they have forgotten how to play baseball. In last night’s game, the Braves led 5-4 in the bottom of the 9th with 2 outs. Emilio Bonifacio of the Marlins hit a high chopper to third base, but the curse hovering over the Braves played a trick on veteran Chipper Jones, who lost the big hop in the lights and allowed it to drop for a base hit. The next batter, Omar Infante, blasted a ball to deep left field, sealing the deal in walk-off fashion. I would not be all that surprised if they drop one more to the Marlins in the final two games of this series.
I’m going to have to say that the Cardinals will complete this comeback and snag the last playoff spot in the National League. The Cardinals have players who know how to win when the pressure in on. With their impressive wins, and the devastating losses the Braves are suffering, I think the Cardinals have what it takes to play ball in October.