After punching their ticket to a fourth consecutive postseason appearance, the Tampa Bay Rays head to Cleveland, where they will open the best of three American League Wildcard series on Friday. The Rays dropped five in a row, and seven of their last eight to end the regular season, while the Guardians won seven of their last 10 including two of three against the Rays a week or so back.
At 86-76 on the season, the Rays enter play 10 games above .500, having locked down their playoff spot on Friday, in Houston. Meanwhile, the Guardians enter play 22 games above .500, having won the AL Central title.
If Tampa Bay’s performance down the stretch is representative of anything, this could be a quick series win for Cleveland. After all, the Rays put up a lackluster .211 BA/.288 OBP/.338 SLG/.626 OPS line over the final two weeks of the season, with a less-than-optimal 84 wRC+ … not to mention an even worse slash line over the last seven days. The lag in success, though, can be explained, in part, by an unlucky .274 BABIP — some 21 points below their season BABIP of .295 (a .229 BABIP over the last seven days). That, in turn, was due in part to a team strategy to start resting players in anticipation of the postseason or get them healthy. Enter Yandy Díaz, who has sat on the shelf for the better part of September due to left shoulder soreness. His re-addition will help the Rays immensely. It makes the lineup thicker, and it allows manager Kevin Cash to cobble together a more potent lineup.
Beyond that, while Cleveland has outperformed Tampa Bay offensively over the last month-plus, both teams are pretty even overall. Both, too, could be in for regression, be that positive or negative. The Rays have underperformed their season BABIP over the last month (despite barrels a-plenty), while the Guardians have overperformed their season BABIP. And while there is a rather large discrepancy in production between both teams over the last week (78 wRC+ vs 105 wRC+), they are pretty close to one another when looking at the overall numbers (101 wRC+ vs 99 wRC+).
Something to keep in the back of your mind as well, in spite of their high contact and low strikeout tendencies, the Guardians have two exploitable weaknesses: hitting against southpaws and heaters. Cleveland has struggled against lefties all season, finishing with a wRC+ 20 points higher against righties. As Dan Szymborski (FanGraphs) noted, only the Marlins had a larger platoon split in that direction. They also had the second-worst offense in baseball against fastballs this season — sitting 40 runs below league average and combining for a .383 slugging percentage on fastballs. Per Szymborski, both of those numbers edged out only the Tigers.
To navigate those waters, Cash will call upon the services of fireballers Shane McClanahan and Tyler Glasnow, and presumably, Jeffrey Springs should there need to be a rubber match on Sunday.
The Rays went 2-4 against the Guardians this season and 1-2 in Cleveland.
As mentioned above, Kevin Cash will turn to Shane McClanahan (12-8, 2.54 ERA, 3.00 FIP) and Tyler Glasnow (0-0, 1.35 ERA, 2.96 FIP) in the first two games of the series, and likely Jeffrey Springs (9-5, 2.46 ERA, 3.04 FIP) on Sunday should there be a game three. Terry Francona will counter with Shane Bieber (13-8, 2.88 ERA, 2.87 FIP), Triston McKenzie (11-11, 2.96 ERA, 3.59 FIP), and Cal Quantrill (15-5, 3.38 ERA, 4.12 FIP).
Shane McClanahan got the start Saturday and allowed two runs on five hits and a walk while striking out two over five innings. McClanahan bounced back from a rough outing last Sunday versus Toronto, but the Rays’ offense didn’t muster enough run support — or any whatsoever if we are being honest. The ace exited the game after 67 pitches (45 strikes, 67% strike rate), presumably to give him a bit of rest with the Rays’ playoff spot confirmed Friday. The southpaw finished the regular season with a 2.54 ERA and a 3.01 FIP (2.60 xFIP), a 0.93 WHIP, and a 5.11 K/BB across 166.1 innings through 28 starts.
Shane Bieber struck out three across five innings on Sunday against the Royals, allowing two runs (one earned) on seven hits and a walk. After scattering two hits and a walk through the first three frames, Bieber ran into trouble in the fourth inning and was the victim of some bad defense. The Royals hit three singles and scored one of their two runs following a throwing error by Gabriel Arias. The five frames completed brought Bieber’s season total to exactly 200 — his second time reaching that mark in his career. Prior to that, the right-hander allowed four runs on six hits against the Rays while striking out six across six innings. He finished the regular season with a 2.88 ERA and a 2.87 FIP, with a 1.04 WHIP, and a 5.50 K/BB through 31 starts. Key Matchups: Ji-Man Choi (5-13, 2 2B, RBI, 2 BB), Yandy Díaz (1-4), Wander Franco (1-3, 2B), David Peralta (1-3, RBI), Harold (1-3, 2B, RBI), José Siri (1-2, HR, 2 RBI), Taylor Walls (1-2)
Tyler Glasnow was very good against Boston on Monday, hurling 3.2 scoreless frames, while allowing two hits and a walk with seven strikeouts. Glasnow was stretched out a little further, tossing 64 pitches (41 strikes, 64% strike rate). That puts him in a good position to throw 75-80 pitches on Saturday. Over his two outings, he’s allowed one run on four hits and two walks while striking out 10 batters over 6.2 innings. In that time, he maintains a 1.35 ERA and 2.96 FIP, with a 0.90 WHIP, and a 5.00 K/BB.
Something else to consider:
Triston McKenzie allowed one run on four hits over five frames against Kansas City on Monday. He struck out four. McKenzie gave up a run in the third inning but otherwise worked a pretty clean outing. The 25-year-old right-hander ended his regular season by allowing three runs or fewer in his final 11 starts, posting a 2.27 ERA through 71.1 innings during that stretch. In his previous start against Tampa Bay, McKenzie allowed one earned run on three hits and a walk while striking out six across six innings. Over his 2022 campaign, McKenzie owned an impressive 2.96 ERA and a 3.59 FIP, with a 4.32 K/BB across 31 appearances (30 starts). Key Matchups: Christian Bethancourt (2-5, 2B, RBI), Ji-Man Choi (1-4, 2B, BB), José Siri (1-4)
Jeffrey Springs allowed one run on two hits and one walk over three innings against the Red Sox on a rainy Tuesday night. He struck out three. After throwing at least five innings in 11 of his previous 12 starts, Springs was pulled early Tuesday after completing the third inning to give him extra rest ahead of the postseason. The one run he surrendered came on a Christian Arroyo single after he allowed a leadoff walk to Alex Verdugo and a base hit to Eric Hosmer. Springs completes his season with a career-high 135.1 innings pitched to go along with a 2.46 ERA and a 3.04 FIP, with 144 punchouts.
Cal Quantrill struck out four in five innings while allowing a run on four hits on Tuesday against the Royals. Quantrill scattered two singles over the first four innings, holding the Royals scoreless. After retiring the first two batters in the fifth, he gave up consecutive hits while a run came around to score. The right-hander allowed one run in each of his last three starts, lowering his ERA for the season to 3.38, and his FIP to 4.12. In his previous start against Tampa Bay, Quantrill allowed one run on three hits over six innings, however, he gave up a ton of hard contact in the outing. One cannot live on the hope of good BABIP luck (just ask Corey Kluber). Key Matchups: Christian Bethancourt (1-3, 2B), Yandy Díaz (2-3, 3B), Wander Franco (3-6, 2B), David Peralta (3-4, RBI), José Siri (2-2, 2B)
— The Rays released their Wildcard roster on Friday, which you can see below. Among the roster additions is Javy Guerra, who got the spot over fellow righty JT Chargois, which suggests Kevin Cash is prioritizing whiffs over contact. Also worth noting, Drew Rasmussen will be in bullpen for Tampa Bay on Friday, and available for whatever is needed — Corey Kluber as well. Jeffrey Springs, who pitched Tuesday, could be in ‘pen Saturday, although it would make sense to start him Sunday (if necessary) vs. a team that struggles versus left-handed pitching. Finally, Nate Lowe was added to the postseason taxi squad.