Ji-Man Choi clearly is excited for the weekend series against the Athletics. (Photo Credit: Tampa Bay Rays)

After 5-1/2 months and 146 games, the Tampa Bay Rays are on the precipice of their most important series of the season. Enter the Oakland Athletics. A series win would allow the Rays to gain anywhere from one and three games on the Athletics, who sit eight games ahead of Tampa Bay in the American League Wildcard race. Then again, a series loss would all but wipe the slate clean on Tampa Bay’s postseason hopes in 2018. Expect the high drama and excitement of postseason baseball this weekend … this writer happens to be stoked, as does the Rays skipper:

I’m excited to see how the guys come in and perform, Rays manager Kevin Cash said. It’s being talked about. I kind of like the fact that it’s being talked about. Let’s see. Put some added emphasis on it and see how we respond. I’m going to guess that we’ll handle it well because they’ve handled all the challenges really well to this point.

(Stats Credit: ESPN)

The Rays are coming off a series win against the AL Central-leading squad out of Cleveland. They continued their hot run of play having beaten two of the best pitchers in baseball, Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco. The key to the Rays success was the pitching staff, which limited Edwin Encarnacion and company to just seven total runs. Cleveland hoped to clinch the division title at the Trop, but that was not to be thanks to solid pitching and advantageous run scoring.

Since the start of September, Tampa Bay’s pitching staff has performed to a combined 3.12 ERA/3.12 FIP (starters 3.82 ERA/3.88 FIP, relievers 2.77 ERA/2.89 FIP).

Meanwhile, the Athletics are coming off three consecutive series wins (vs. the Yankees, Rangers, and Orioles), although they did drop the series finale against Baltimore on Thursday, 5-3, which allowed Tampa Bay to pick up a half game in the AL Wildcard race. Like the Rays, Oakland’s hurlers have been very good, yet unlike Tampa Bay — which has a more well-rounded pitching staff — the Athletics success comes mainly from the relievers.

Decimated by injuries, the starting rotation has performed to a 4.05 ERA/4.99 FIP in the month of September (33-1/3 combined innings). Compare that the bullpen, which has performed to a 2.86 ERA/3.10 FIP in 56-2/3 September innings. If you’re counting, that’s an average of 3.33 innings per start over the last 11 games. And while the Rays’ starters maintain a similar innings per start figure in the month of September, that’s because of Kevin Cash’s use of openers three out of every five games.

(Stats Credit: FanGraphs)

Oakland has edged out Tampa Bay with a marginally better .695 winning percentage since the All-Star Break (as compared to a .633 WP%), although one could argue that the Rays are the more exciting team due in part to their nine walk-off wins. In order for the Rays to beat the Athletics this weekend, they will need to score runs early and often. It also will be incumbent on the pitching staff to preserve any leads the team may hold, and rein in the league-leading home run hitter Khris Davis, as well as rest of the team.

Tampa Bay beat Oakland three-games-to-one between May 28 to May 31, scoring 14 runs and limiting the Athletics to 10 along the way.

Pitching Probables

Considering when they last pitched, Kevin Cash will likely lean on Ryan Yarbrough (14-5, 3.78 ERA), Yonny Chirinos (4-5, 3.81 ERA), and Jalen Beeks (4-1, 5.57 ERA) to pitch the majority of innings over the next three days. Diego Castillo (3-2, 3.81 ERA) will open Friday, with the other two “openers” listed as TBD. There is also the possibility that Tyler Glasnow could pitch on regular rest. Bob Melvin will respond by throwing former Ray Edwin Jackson (5-3, 3.26 ERA), a pitcher to be announced before Saturday’s ballgame, and Mike Fiers (12-6, 3.29 ERA).

(Stats Credit: Tampa Bay Rays)

Diego Castillo gave up the early lead on Monday when Michael Brantley walked with one out, was wild pitched into scoring position, and moved up to third on a groundout. Edwin Encarnacion followed with a single to left, putting Cleveland in front. Although that was the only hit Castillo would allow, as the right-hander gave up just one hit in the first two innings.

Yonny Chirinos allowed three earned runs on seven hits across 6-1/3 quality innings in a win over Baltimore on Sunday. He struck out six. Chirinos turned in the equivalent of a quality start, getting through his six-plus frames on an efficient 94 pitches (59 strikes, 63% strike rate, 16/25 first-pitch strikes). The right-hander has generated mixed results since assuming his current role, but he’s been sharper of late — considering Sunday’s line, Chirinos has allowed four earned runs over 13-1/3 innings while generating a 3.67 K/BB over his last two turns on the mound.

Edwin Jackson allowed four runs on five hits and a walk while striking out five across three innings. The right-hander struggled after firing a scoreless first inning, allowing four runs on three extra-base hits over the next two innings plus before being chased one batter into the fourth. The rough outing raised Jackson’s ERA from 2.91 to 3.26. The former Ray is 3-3 with a 3.98 ERA in six career starts against Tampa Bay, and 11-16 with a 5.35 ERA in 33 starts at the Trop. Key Matchups: Matt Duffy (2-2), Mallex Smith (1-1, RBI)

Ryan Yarbrough picked up the win Saturday against the Orioles, allowing three runs on six hits and two walks across 3-2/3 innings. He struck out three. Yarbrough handled the majority of Saturday’s game for the Rays, allowing a run-scoring single to Jonathan Villar in the third inning and a two-run homer to Renato Nunez in the fourth, but a healthy amount of run support propelled the southpaw to his 14th win of the season. Yarbrough now owns a 3.78 ERA, 1.26 WHIP and 2.61 K/BB across 133-1/3 innings (34 appearances, six starts) this season.

TBA

Jalen Beeks boasted neither fastball command or control Monday night. After escaping a pair of threatening situations in his first two innings of work, Francisco Lindor hit a one-out single to right, and Michael Brantley doubled to right-center. Jose Ramirez followed by looping a ball into shallow centerfield that fell beyond Brandon Lowe and in front of Smith for a double, chasing Beeks after 2-1/3 innings (51 pitches, 33 strikes, 65% strike rate, 8/13 first-pitch strikes) and making it 4-2. That made for the third consecutive short outing by the right-hander after he built up his arm back in August.

Mike Fiers allowed one run on four hits and one walk while striking out seven in six innings on Tuesday. He picked up the win. His remarkable run since getting traded to Oakland continued, as the right-handed Fiers is now 5-0 with 42 strikeouts across 39.2 innings (seven starts) in an Athletics uniform. He has won six straight decisions overall, and only needed 84 pitches (56 strikes, 66% strike rate, 18/22 first-pitch strikes) to cruise to this quality start. Fiers is 1-1 with a 5.14 ERA in four starts against the Rays, and 1-1 with a 7.31 ERA in three career starts at Tropicana Field. Key Matchups: Ji-Man Choi (1-3, 2B), Matt Duffy (2-7), Mallex Smith (1-3), Jesus Sucre (2-5)

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