MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Toronto Blue Jays

Not Those Guys Again: Rays Series Preview

Toronto Blue Jays vs. Tampa Bay Rays

September 12 – 14

Written by Elie Waitzer and Greg Wisniewski

The Tampa Bay rays have 82 losses already, guaranteeing them a losing season, and it’s only the 12th of September. This looks especially bad, since the rest of the division has no more than 66 losses apiece. Truly, the Rays are the doormat of the AL East, if only because the other teams are so unexpectedly good. The Jays only salvaged one win at the end of the series they played at the Trop, and without a series win against the Rays at home, the conversation about the Jays playoff chances will start to shift from “division winner” to “which wild card slot can they try to hang on to.”

Pitching Matchups:

Monday, September 12th – 7:07 PM ET

Francisco Liriano vs. Jake Odorizzi

The last start that Liriano made against the Twins was a perfect example of “Bad Liriano.” Despite giving up just two hits, he walked four and exited after five innings having allowed four runs. His two appearances out of the bullpen are blemished only by a cheap home run that scraped over that low part of the wall in the Trop where Evan Longoria hit his famous walk-off dinger to send the Rays to the playoffs in 2011.

One interesting thing to watch for is whether Liriano sticks with his trademarked strategy of avoiding the zone like hot lava. The Rays have one of the higher chase rates in the league, but if his slider isn’t on we’re going to see a ton of walks instead of whiffs out of the zone. Another thing to note is that the Rays have four lefty bats in their regular lineup. Given how well Logan Morrison has been hitting lately, we could see Mikie Mahtook start in the outfield in place of Corey Dickerson against Liriano.

After weathering a mid-season slump, Odorizzi put together a sparkling August, going 4-0 with a 2.48 ERA and 31 K over 36.1 IP. Then Baltimore welcomed him to the month of September by tagging him for seven runs over four innings. He looked very hittable in his last start against Toronto in early August, but overall the Jays’ bats have been handcuffed by Odorizzi, striking out 22 times and managing to score just nine runs over 23 IP. Odorizzi’s successes and failures this season have coincided with his walk rate, so the Jays need to get back to their patient ways and take advantage of his 43.3 Zone%.

Tuesday, September 13th – 7:07 PM ET

Marcus Stroman vs. Drew Smyly

Stroman has taken some hard-luck losses recently, with the Jays offence going ice-cold when he takes the mound. Recently he’s struggled with efficiency, suddenly losing command of his fastball mid-inning and needing 20 or 30 pitches to get three outs. That’s not how a ground ball pitcher should be operating, and the Jays need him to conserve his pitch count to get deep into games. One thing to watch against the Rays is how Stroman’s slider fares. Tampa Bay’s hitters have the second-highest ISO against sliders in the league (.194), but also strikeout on the pitch at a 34.6 percent clip. It’ll be boom or bust for Stroman in Tampa Bay.

This is the most intriguing matchup of the series, as both Stroman and Smyly have the potential to either rack up a ton of strikeouts or give up a ton of home runs. Or both. Smyly has thrown more innings against Toronto than any other team this season, and it’s been up and down. An encouraging sign for the Jays is that Smyly’s velocity has been trending down all season long, with his slider in particular losing approximately 4 MPH since April.

Wednesday, September 14th – 12:37 PM ET

Marco Estrada vs. Alex Cobb

Don’t step on a crack or you’ll break your Marco’s back. The Jays’ quality start machine has maintained that his back is not the issue, but just looking at his delivery you can tell there’s some discomfort. Over his last five starts he has posted a 7.71 ERA while walking 3.5 batters per nine innings and going more than six innings just once. His 2.18 ERA vs. Tampa Bay over nine games is the best of any current Jays starter, and although he was touched up for five runs in his last turn against them, it was on only seven hits. In fact, his BABIP over this horrible five start stretch is an astronomical .347, which suggests he’s due for some reverse in luck.

Cobb flummoxed the Jays in his first start back from the DL on Sep. 2, striking out seven and generating pathetically weak contact. He looked a little more mortal in his last start against the Yankees – surrendering two homers – but the Jays will need to go into this game with a smarter plan against Cobb. He’s essentially a fastball-changeup guy (though he does have a wicked curveball that he’ll throw every now and then), and the Jays have far and away the highest walk rate against changeups this season (8.8 percent). It’s obviously not as simple as that, but hopefully the fact that most of the lineup has seen Cobb’s stuff before will help.

Additions and Subtractions

The expanded roster for Tampa Bay includes the addition of Eddie Gamboa, Curt Casali, Ryan Garton, Justin Marks, Mikie Mahtook, Steve Geltz, Richie Shaffer, Chase Whitely, and the signing of Alexi Ramirez. Are any of these guys hot prospects on their way up? How about Richie Schaffer, who is 24 years old was the 25th overall pick in 2012? He plays the corner infield positions, but barring a Longoria injury, I can guess we might see him at first base or DH only.

We already covered the additions for the Blue Jays a week ago, but a friendly reminder that the precense of base stealing specialist Dalton Pompey and a third catcher available in Dioner Navarro or Josh Thole give John Gibbons a lot more flexibility on offense. The bullpen, too, is full of options, just not any remarkably good ones.

Keep an Eye On

What about the Defense?

The Blue Jays have been unexpectedly bad on defense over the last stretch off bad games. The errors don’t really tell the story, as catchable balls in the outfield have sailed over fielder’s heads or fallen in front, and infield positioning has lead to several booted balls that didn’t get converted into outs. A lot of these miscues don’t show up in the scorebook, but handing the runner two bases on a missed pickoff turns into a very good run scoring opportunity for the opponent. It’s hardly the only area the Jays have struggled, but if they start kicking the ball around against the Rays, the losses will likely just keep coming.

Travis on Top of His Game

As of this writing, Devon Travis is on a seven game hit streak, 15 for 35, for a .428 batting average. In fact, since his first multi hit game this year, back on June 13th (we’ll make this the arbitrary end of his “Spring Training” as he was rushed back from rehab) he’s been marvelous. He’s hit .337/.366/.519 for an .884 OPS. His tAV is a tidy .283. If he continues to be this tough to defend against, he’s the perfect leadoff hitter for the Jays in September.

The Bullpen Battle

The Blue Jays, of late, have been up against many situations where a late comeback would have been truly excellent. In the sweep of Minnesota, all of the games seemed like they hinged on the ineptness of the Twins bullpen. The potential good news is that while the Rays starters have a 4.16 DRA (11th best in baseball), their bullpen comes out at 4.61, 26th worst in baseball. The Jays rate a 17th (4.38) for their starters, and respectable 13th (4.06) for their relievers. So, unlike facing, say, New York and Cleveland, all is not lost when facing a deficit late in the game.

Probable Lineup

Toronto Blue Jays

Tampa Bay Rays

Devon Travis – 2B Logan Forsythe – 2B
Josh Donaldson – 3B Kevin Kiermaier – CF
Edwin Encarnacion – 1B Evan Longoria – 3B
Jose Bautista – RF Brad Miller – 1B
Russell Martin – C Logan Morrison – DH
Troy Tulowitzki – SS Nick Franklin – SS
Michael Saunders – DH Steven Souza – RF
Melvin Upton Jr. – LF Corey Dickerson – LF
Kevin Pillar – CF Bobby Wilson – C

via Roster Resource

Final Thoughts

Dropping two of three from the Sox put the Jays in a tie for the wild card with Baltimore, while Tampa did Toronto a favour by keeping the Yankees at bay for another game. Maybe Tampa can do another favour by being jet-lagged for three days upon arriving in the T-dot. What does it all mean? By no means is this the end of the season, but Boston’s offense is firing on all cylinders right now, and Toronto’s is not. They’re certainly not hitting enough to overcome a pitching staff that is letting a half a dozen runs in every other night (which is a thing that is actually happening.) Some part of the Jays game needs to get locked back in, and the rest needs to follow along very quickly. This is the get it done league, as we have been told, and against a last place team in the middle of September, there’s no alternative.

Lead Photo: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

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