You get what you pay for, right?
Well, not always. Take the deep-pocketed Red Sox, for instance. After steamrolling the Dodgers (and seemingly every other opponent on their path to World Series glory) en route to their fourth title of the current century, the Red Sox got the band back together for another run at October in 2019. And they spared no expense in doing so, only skimping on relief pitching (why pay Craig Kimbrel when you can have Matt Barnes walk the bases loaded on 600 pitches every ninth inning?) and Mookie Betts’ still MIA contract extension. And where exactly has it gotten them? Only afterthought status in the AL East and playoff odds bordering on non-existent (7.7 percent as of this writing). Compromised by Chris Sale’s war-ravished elbow and a Gingerbread-house bullpen propped up by stale graham crackers and vanilla frosting, it’s going to take more than electrolytes and Advil to extinguish this World Series hangover.
Maybe the Red Sox, still a premier offensive club by every measure, aren’t quite the baseball Hindenburg I made them out to be, but they’ve still underachieved on a colossal scale relative to their eye-popping $227.4 million payroll (easily the league’s highest). Boston’s failures are especially amplified when compared to the success of division-rival Tampa Bay, the McDonald’s Dollar Menu of MLB franchises. The fiscally-conservative A’s popularized the Moneyball movement in Oakland some 15 years ago and now Tampa Bay, it seems, is taking Billy Beane’s vision a step further. Drawing from a league-low $62.37 million payroll (roughly a quarter of Boston’s bloated budget), the Rays aren’t playing Moneyball—they’re playing Pennyball. Whether anyone cares or not—and going by the Rays’ meager attendance figures (they’re averaging a smidge over 15,000 fans), not many do—Tampa Bay’s grand experiment is working.
Maybe it’s an odd time to call attention to the Rays, seeing as how they’ve dropped four out of five with two of those losses coming at the hands of the lowly Orioles, who are so far out of first (43 games behind the division-leading Yankees) they need a telescope to see it. But the fact that the Rays, even after their recent hiccups, are still knocking on October’s door (one game back of Oakland for the second Wild Card spot) is a testament to this team’s endless resiliency. Only one Ray (rare free-agent splurge Charlie Morton) makes eight figures. Boston has eight players earning that much. In fact, the Red Sox are paying Pablo Sandoval—now in his second stint with the Giants—more ($18.45 million) than the Rays are paying Morton ($15 million). So naturally, the Rays, a low-budget indie film only in select theaters, are running circles around the team with James Cameron’s special effects budget.
We’re all acutely aware of the Rays’ financial constraints, a challenge as constant as the scores of empty seats lining their decrepit stadium. But low funds, a nonexistent fan base and a home park worthy of inclusion on an upcoming season of American Horror Story are far from the Rays’ only obstacles. Injuries to Blake Snell (whose follow-up to last year’s Cy Young campaign has been a mixed bag), Tyler Glasnow and Yonny Chirinos have sapped the pitching staff of much of its strength while the abrupt conclusion of Brandon Lowe’s impressive debut season (.276, 16 HR, 49 RBI in 76 games) has also thrown a wrench in Tampa Bay’s postseason agenda.
But the Rays always find a way. Whether it’s unearthing a hidden gem like Ji-Man Choi, pulling a Tarantino by reviving the dormant career of Eric Sogard, coaxing newfound power out of ex-Mets lightweight Travis d’Arnaud (more on him in a minute) or pulling the wool over Pittsburgh’s eyes with a blatant trade robbery (the Pirates’ ill-advised Chris Archer swap will continue to haunt them), Tampa always seems to have a trick up its sleeve. Which brings us to Thursday’s events at Minute Maid Park, where the high-powered Astros hosted the Rays in a getaway day matinee.
If you only had the box score to go off of, this didn’t look like a game the Rays had any business winning. Colin Poche, Tampa Bay’s fourth pitcher of the afternoon, issued five walks in the fifth inning alone. The Rays served up a trio of homers, none of them cheapies, including a tape-measure bomb off the bat of mighty mouse Jose Altuve (who established a new career-high with his 25th round-tripper). Worked to the bone by Houston’s relentless lineup, the Rays’ gassed staff burned through its allotted mound visits by the seventh inning. Yet as the Rays so often do when the odds are against them, Tampa Bay prevailed, avoiding what would have been a three-game sweep by handing the Astros a 9-8 defeat in Thursday’s series finale.
Scoring in seven of nine frames would win most days, but not this time as the Rays matched the Astros’ potent offense with an outburst of their own. D’Arnaud’s August hasn’t been as explosive as his blistering July (.342, 8 HR, 25 RBI in 76 at-bats), but he had Zack Greinke’s number Thursday, beating him for three hits including a two-out, two-run jack in the fourth inning to give the Rays a short-lived 4-2 advantage. It’s been a tepid month for the veteran backstop, at least in comparison to his meteoric July, and d’Arnaud’s loosening grip on the starting role has been the collateral damage. D’Arnaud’s August doldrums (.239 AVG in 71 at-bats) have opened the door for defensive whiz and running Cespedes Family Barbecue gag Mike Zunino to see more playing time behind the plate, though Thursday’s four-RBI breakout could be the jolt he needs to stay ahead of Mike Z.
While d’Arnaud, Choi (2-for-4, 2 RBI and a walk) and Austin Meadows—who socked his team-leading 24th homer in the winning effort—did the heavy lifting offensively for Tampa, Emilio Pagan served as a stabilizing force out of the pen, preserving the win by supplying a rare seven-out save. The right-hander logged three strikeouts along the way while fending off a furious ninth-inning rally that dissipated when George Springer’s hard-hit fly to left landed anticlimactically in Tommy Pham’s leather for the final out. Pagan got a major assist from home plate umpire Jordan Baker, who rung up Josh Reddick in the previous at-bat on a pitch that most would agree was ball four. In no mood to debate, Baker sent an irate Reddick to an early shower.
Thursday was just one game, but the Rays need all of them. They’ll have a golden opportunity to climb up the Wild Card latter this weekend against the Indians, who carry a slim 2.5-game edge over Tampa Bay. The Rays are a near lock to better their record from a year ago (90-72), but that’s not the end game here. It’s postseason or bust for the Pennyball Rays.
AL Quick Hits: Matt Chapman (head) didn’t start Thursday’s game but eventually checked in as a defensive replacement in a win over Kansas City. Manager Bob Melvin confirmed the All-Star third baseman will be back in action for the start of Friday’s three-game set against the Yankees, who the A’s swept a week ago in Oakland. … Matt Harvey had considered opting out of his minor-league deal with Oakland, but instead he’ll stick around in hopes of a September call-up. The Athletics don’t have an opening for him in the starting rotation, so if Harvey does crack the major-league roster, it will have to be as a bullpen arm. … Sean Manaea joined the A’s for a bullpen session on Thursday. The left-hander recently wrapped up his minor-league rehab, posting a 4.71 ERA over eight starts between High-A Stockton and Triple-A Las Vegas. Now nearly a year removed from shoulder surgery, Manaea could be activated any day now. … Rougned Odor went 0-for-3 in Thursday’s loss to the Mariners, running his hitless streak to 28 at-bats. The dry spell has dropped his average to an anemic .192, worst in the majors among qualified hitters. Rangers manager Chris Woodward suggested Odor could be in danger of losing his starting job at second base if he doesn’t pick up the pace soon. … Mike Clevinger pulled out all the stops Thursday, continuing his torrid second-half by blanking the Tigers over eight dominant frames as Cleveland ran its winning streak against Detroit to 14 games. The right-hander has been brilliant for the Tribe, contributing a 9-0 record with a stellar 1.86 ERA over his last 11 starts. … The Rays are holding off on placing Kevin Kiermaier on the injured list despite him missing the past three games with a rib contusion. The team is hoping the two-time Gold Glove winner will suit up Friday against the Indians.
NL Quick Hits: Another day, another homer for rookie phenom Aristides Aquino, who drove in all three Cincinnati runs in Thursday’s 12-inning loss to Miami. The 25-year-old’s 14 long balls this month are the most ever by an NL rookie. … X-rays on Max Muncy’s injured wrist came back negative, though the first-time All-Star is still expected to take a seat for the next handful of games. Utility man Enrique Hernandez spelled Muncy at second base in Thursday night’s loss to the Diamondbacks. … Muncy’s Dodgers teammate Ross Stripling is nearing the finish line in his recovery from a strained neck. Stripling worked three innings in a simulated game in Arizona earlier this week, putting him on track to return Sunday when rosters expand. … Kenley Jansen has had a rough go of it recently, blowing three of his past four save opportunities for the Dodgers. Despite the rough patch, manager Dave Roberts will continue to stand by his All-Star closer, insisting the team will “keep running him out there”. … Willson Contreras will begin a minor-league rehab stint with Triple-A Iowa on Friday. Shelved with a hamstring strain since early August, Contreras will spend roughly a week in the minors before joining the Cubs for their stretch run in September. … Anthony Rizzo accrued another absence Thursday, serving as a spectator for the fourth straight game Thursday as the Cubs claimed a 4-1 victory over the Mets. Still bothered by back stiffness, it’s unlikely we’ll see Rizzo in action Friday against Milwaukee. … Wilson Ramos extended his hitting streak to 22 by going 2-for-4 in Thursday’s 4-1 loss to Chicago. It’s been a glorious month for the veteran catcher, who has hit a mammoth .418 over 91 August at-bats while boosting his season average from a modest .255 to a more respectable .292. … Luke Weaver is slated to throw an “aggressive” bullpen session on Friday using all of his pitches. Sidelined since May with a strained flexor tendon in his throwing elbow, the D’Backs righty could be cleared for a simulated game if all goes well Friday. … This is my final Baseball Dose of the year as I transition into football season. Thanks so much for reading me this year and I’ll see you next spring!