Orioles move into first place in the AL East with win over Rays in Tampa
Photo credit:© Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
By Michael Liu4 months ago
At the start of the season, it seemed unfathomable that any MLB team could catch the mighty Tampa Bay Rays.
Yet here we are, on July 21st, with the Baltimore Orioles leapfrogging the Rays with a series-opening 4-3 win. It’s another testament to how volatile a full baseball season is, with plenty of games left to go before October.
Tampa Bay roared out of the gates with 13 straight wins, en route to a 23-6 record through the month of April. Not only did they have their signature strong rotation, but the Rays were getting their offence to click scoring the 4th most runs in the entire league. They simply mowed their way to the very top of the MLB and looked destined to not only run away with the AL East, but also make some noise in the postseason.
But after going 29-7, the wheels seemed to have fallen off the Rays’ joyride. Tampa lost key starters Drew Rasmussen and Jeffery Springs for the season, both pitching some of their best before being shut down of the year. Taj Bradley looked good in his first couple of starts, but has since struggled with consistency as all young pitchers inevitably do. The return of Tyler Glasnow has been a boon for the Rays, however, it hasn’t offset the holes left by Rasmussen and Springs. An overall regression in the pitching staff’s performances has not helped much in that department either.
This isn’t mentioning how the team’s bats cooled down significantly from April-May into June-July. At one point, Tampa sported the longest losing streak in the entire league (7 games) while going 3-12 through the month of July. They’ve posted a 31-33 record since the 29-7 start, which still gives them a respectable 60-40 record on the season, but respectable isn’t going to get the job done in the cutthroat AL East.
As the Rays have stumbled, the team that has stepped up the most to capitalize has been the Orioles. A ballclub full of young talent that’s long been mired in misery and rebuilding, Baltimore has emerged from the depths in 2023 with Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson leading the charge. They’ve looked in the mood to be playing winning baseball and the front office seems to agree, moving to acquire Shintaro Fujinami to help bolster the bullpen leading up to the MLB trade deadline. It’s a sign that this group wants to push for the division title, something they haven’t done since 2014.
With the win last night against the Rays, it has thrust the Orioles into first place in the AL East – the first time that they’ve been in this position since the 2016 season. It’s also the first time since April 2nd that the Rays don’t have sole possession of the division lead. This isn’t to say that Baltimore hasn’t deserved to be jousting for the division, they’ve more than earned it with their play. But the biggest story is how Tampa even let it get to this point. It should have been an insurmountable lead that they would continue to build on. And even then, sub-.500 play after the start they had would’ve been enough to cut it in most other divisions. The problem is that the Rays can’t afford to slide the way they have because they’re in the AL East.
While the Rays are far too good of a ballclub to flounder for too long, the series against the Orioles will bring the pressure and focus on the title race tightening up. It’s all to play for after the All-Star break, something that many people probably didn’t expect. And, with the Jays 5.5 games back, Toronto could offer yet another dark horse candidate that could strike in the chaos that will arise. The arms race looks to be on already, and the Rays have the prospect pool (and permission) to really bring in some talent to shore up their lineup.
This Orioles-Rays series will be must-watch baseball. The young, exciting Baltimore group looks to keep the good times rolling and bring the O’s back into the postseason, while Tampa looks to regain its footing after a myriad of stumbles after their soaring heights. A lack of energy, emotion, and buy-in has characterized this Ray freefall in the last two months. This series could provide the spark that the club needs to reignite the engine down into the stretch run – or, just as feasibly, could be the shatter point that crushes their ambitions for a deep postseason run.
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