With the 2021 All-Star Break behind them, the Tampa Bay Rays will travel to Cobb County where they will open a three-game set against Atlanta on Friday.
The Rays enter the second half of the season with a 53-37 overall record, 15-games over .500, and 1.5-games back of the Boston Red Sox for the division lead. Meanwhile, Atlanta sits one game below the .500-mark with a 44-45 overall record, but that is good enough to put them just four games back in the NL East standings. Both teams took two of three in their respective series before the break.
Tampa Bay enters play with the fifth easiest schedule in baseball — 44 of the final 72 games (61%) will come against teams currently performing to a .500 WP% or below, including 13 games against the Orioles — against whom the Rays are 6-0 — and seven games each against the Tigers and Twins.
To their credit, the Rays won six of seven games going into the break. However, Tampa Bay has dropped 10 of the last 11 road games after starting the season 24-10 away from the Trop.
Atlanta lost Ronald Acuña Jr. to a season-ending ACL injury before the break, leading many to opine that their postseason hopes were done. Yet, they acquired Joc Pederson from the Cubs on Thursday in an attempt to navigate the loss of Acuña, especially offensively.
While the offense can be streaky, Tampa Bay enters the series with a +85 run differential, which is almost 30 runs better than Boston.
And while they had a pretty decent first half offensively, the defensive side of things is where they shine, as the Rays have allowed the fewest runs in the division and the second-fewest runs in the American League. They pace the league in defensive runs saved (DRS) at 56, while the bullpen ranks second in FIP (3.55) and WHIP (1.15).
With or without Acuña, Atlanta is a solid team. They were one game away from the World Series last season, and right now they’re just four games out of first place.
Yet, they are a trainwreck when it comes to the bullpen. Will Smith is a below-average closer, Josh Tomlin has allowed a .376 wOBA while posting an ERA approaching six, and Tyler Matzek and A.J. Minter have been moderately better. All told, Atlanta’s relief corps has performed to a combined 4.27 ERA and 4.17 FIP overall, and a 3.91 ERA and 4.13 FIP over the last two weeks.
If the Rays can keep it close the next three days, against a couple of friends who will toe the rubber, they should have a shot against Atlanta’s ‘pen.
Over the next three days, Kevin Cash will turn to Michael Wacha (2-2, 4.87 ERA), Josh Fleming (7-4, 3.26 ERA) in some capacity, and Rich Hill (6-4, 3.74 ERA). Brian Snitker will counter with Charlie Morton (8-3, 3.64 ERA), Max Fried (6-5, 4.71 ERA), and Drew Smyly (7-3, 4.48 ERA).
Michael Wacha allowed one run on four hits in six innings while striking out one batter, on Wednesday against Cleveland. The righty put forth his second quality start of the season and his first since April 16, with the only blemish being a Franmil Reyes home run in the second inning. Wacha has been inconsistent though, especially of late, as he’s allowed five runs in two of his last four appearances. That being said, he’s mixed in enough effective outings like Wednesday’s to keep his ERA at a respectable 4.87 through 57.1 innings. On the season, Wacha also maintains a 4.63 FIP, a 1.33 WHIP, and a 3.13 K/BB across 57.1 innings. He is 0-4 with a 4.71 ERA in seven career outings (five starts) against Atlanta.
Charlie Morton scattered two hits and two walks over seven scoreless innings on Friday against the Marlins. He struck out seven. In arguably his best start of the season, Morton fired 59 of 95 pitches for strikes (62% strike rate) while not allowing a runner past second. The former Ray has eight quality starts on the season, including four in his last five outings, and he maintains a 3.64 ERA and a 3.41 FIP, with a 1.10 WHIP and 3.45 K/BB across 99 frames. Morton is 2-3 with a 3.23 ERA in five career starts against the Rays. Key Matchups: Joey Wendle (2-6), Mike Zunino (3-12, 2 2B, RBI)
Josh Fleming followed Collin McHugh in the combined no-hitter against Cleveland on Wednesday and allowed the first batter he faced to reach after Oscar Mercado hit a ground ball into the hole on the left side. Wander Franco and Taylor Walls collided while attempting to field the ball. And while it was originally ruled an infield hit, the play was later changed to an error on Franco. Much to Terry Francona’s chagrin though, Mercado was erased after Walls started a terrific 6-4-3 double play on a diving stop to his left (swipe through the embedded Instagram post above for the video). It would be the only base runner the left-hander would allow over 2.2 frames until the fifth inning when he walked Owen Miller with two outs. Fleming lowered his ERA to 3.26 and his FIP to 4.10 with a 1.03 WHIP and a 2.47 K/BB across 69 innings this year.
Max Fried coughed up six runs on seven hits and two walks over five-plus innings against the Pirates in his last start. He struck out five. The southpaw kept things close until he hit the wall in the sixth inning and served up four consecutive hits before getting the hook, with all four runners eventually coming around to score. In 13 trips to the mound this season, he’s been tagged for five or more runs four times. Fried maintains a 4.71 ERA and a 4.14 FIP on the season, with a 1.39 WHIP and a 2.88 K/BB across 72.2 innings. He is 1-0 with a 1.35 ERA in one career start against Tampa Bay. Friend relies primarily on a 94 mph four-seam fastball with heavy sinking action, a 75 mph curveball with exceptional bite glove-side movement, and an 85 mph sweeping slider, while also mixing in a 93 mph sinker. Key Matchup: Francisco Mejía (1-3)
Rich Hill allowed three runs on four hits and three walks while striking out two in five innings on Sunday against Toronto. The southpaw gave up a solo home run to Danny Jansen in the third inning, and Toronto was able to scrape together another pair of runs in the fourth, which was enough to stick Hill with the loss — running his winless streak to three starts. The 41-year-old closed the first half of the season maintaining a 3.74 ERA and a, 0.00 FIP 1.13 WHIP, and 2.56 K/BB across 91.1 innings. Hill is 5-0 with a sparkling 1.74 ERA in nine career outings (seven starts) against Atlanta.
Drew Smyly allowed three runs on nine hits and three walks while recording four strikeouts across five innings against the Pirates two Wednesdays ago. All three runs came via a first-inning, three-run homer by Jacob Stallings. Though Smyly dealt with plenty of traffic on the bases, he held the Pirates scoreless in the next four innings to cap off an 88-pitch outing. The former has earned the win in five consecutive starts and has yielded three runs or fewer in seven straight. Even so, Smyly maintains a 4.48 ERA and a 5.19 FIP on the season, with a 1.35 WHIP and a 2.43 K/BB across 78.1 innings. He is 1-1 with a 4.96 ERA in six career outings (three starts) against the Rays.
— On the injury front, RHP Nick Anderson will face hitters in Port Charlotte on Friday — his first live batting practice since being injured in March. Meanwhile, Chris Archer is expected to pitch for Triple-A Durham over the weekend.
— Rays skipper Kevin Cash shared some encouraging news about right-hander Tyler Glasnow on Thursday.
Glasnow, who is on the 60-day Injured List with a partially torn right UCL and a flexor strain, is “lightly playing catch.” He had previously been advised not to throw for about four weeks by Dr. Keith Meister on June 18.
Glasnow isn’t eligible to come off the 60-day IL until August 14 — and even then that’s pending the outcome of his recovery — although seeing him pick up a baseball is a positive development for him and the team.
For me, that’s a really good sign. If we’re signing off that he can get a ball and get going (and) let’s see how it feels, we should be thrilled with that.— Kevin Cash