After Saturday’s 10-3 victory over the Blue Jays and with one game left before the All Star Break, the Tampa Bay Rays’ record is 43 wins and 53 losses. They’re a percentage point ahead of Boston, and 9.5 games behind the AL East leading Orioles. We can’t say the Rays chances to win the division are good, but history shows that the Rays are not out of the race yet.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the 1914 Boston Braves, baseball’s first ‘miracle’ team whose stretch run enabled them to go from last place in July to first place and a world series win. Of course there are more recent examples. In 1951, the New York Giants called up rookie Willie Mays in June, but were still 13 1/2 games back of the Brooklyn Dodgers on August 11. From August 12 to the end of the season they went 39-8, including a 2-1 playoff victory capped by Bobby Thomson‘s famous home run to win the pennant in what was called “The Miracle of Coogan’s Bluff.” Coogan’s Bluff was where the Giants’ stadium, the Polo Grounds, was located. Then, when I was a boy in Brooklyn in 1969, the Miracle Mets were in third place on August 14, 9.5 games behind the Chicago Cubs. The Mets won 24 of their last 32 while the Cubs lost 17 of their last 24, as the Mets won the division by 8 games. Of course, they overcame the odds to win the first NL Championship series against the Braves and beat the Orioles in the World Series.
If we want to keep with AL East teams, the 1978 New York Yankees were in fourth place on July 19, 14 games behind the AL East-leading Boston Red Sox. The Yankees, you may remember, went 52-21 the rest of the way, catching the Sox and winning a one-game playoff thanks to a three-run homer by Bucky Dent. The Yankees went on to win the World Series. The Red Sox, of course, were managed by Don Zimmer. The Rays are wearing “Zim” patches on their uniforms this year in tribute to him.
There are some similarities between this year’s Rays and these miracle teams. The 1951 Giants benefitted from the exciting play of a rookie outfielder Willie Mays. The Rays also called up an exciting rookie, Kevin Kiermaier. Kiermaier is extremely unlikely as great as Mays in the long run, but in his first taste of the big leagues, Mays hit .274 with an .828 OPS. After his game on Saturday, July 12, Kiermaier is hitting .310 with a .926 OPS. ike the 1969 Mets, the Rays are enjoying spirited play from several young players getting their first chance to play regularly in the big leagues, specifically Brandon Guyer, Logan Forsythe, and a host of young pitchers. In addition, the Mets pitching staff in 1969 was led by Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, but featured a lot of guys who had great careers like Jerry Koosman, Tug McGraw, and a young fireballer named Nolan Ryan. The Rays pitching staff also features one pitcher, David Price, who may just be on track for the Hall of Fame, and several young, promising hurlers like Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, and Jake Odorizzi.
One thing the 1978 Yankees had going for them was a strong bullpen led by Hall of Famer Goose Gossage and lefty Sparky Lyle. They also benefitted from a career year from southpaw Ron Guidry, who went 25-3 with a 1.74 ERA. The Rays do have the dominant lefty in Price, but their bullpen this year has been their most glaring weakness. If they’re going to contend, the Rays must stop giving up three-run homers in the late innings. All three teams also took advantage of a collapse from their rivals. When they started playing well, their division rivals started playing poorly. The Rays will need a similar favor from the top teams in their division.
There’s a reason these teams are still all called “miracle” teams. Teams this far back in July usually don’t win the pennant. The Tampa Bay Rays need to put together a run over the next two months on the order of their last road trip in order to have a chance. If they do, history shows that a division title, and even a pennant, still may be within reach.