September will be a busy month for the Tampa Bay Rays as the race for the American League East looks to be going down to the wire. The team entered the month 1.5 games behind the Baltimore Orioles for the division lead while holding firm in the top Wild Card spot. The Rays have fallen off the division pace, now trailing by 3.5 games, but remain in command of the Wild Card.
If the regular season ended today, the Rays would be hosting the Seattle Mariners in a best-of-three series in the Wild Card round. While it'd be a great matchup, the division crown should be the goal. Here are some headlines, players, and series to watch as the Rays set their sights on the World Series.
17 days of non-stop action
After August was full of off days, the Rays will play 17 straight games to start the month, barring any cancellations due to weather or other unforeseen circumstances. This could be a taxing time for the Rays' entire pitching staff, especially the bullpen. The relievers were decent in August, pitching to a 4.28 ERA in 101 innings, but they'll need to be even stronger in September. Giving the bullpen some time off should incentivize the team's four regular starters to go deeper into games, negating the constant need for bullpen support. This will be even harder now that Jason Adam has hit the injured list. Look for Robert Stephenson to be a big part of the plan after finishing August on a roll.
One final battle with the Orioles
To finish their 17 games in 17 days, the Rays will be in Baltimore Sept. 14-17 for a four-game series. The Orioles have had the Rays' number this season, winning six of the nine meetings, including two of three games in May and three out of four in July. For as hot as the Rays finished August, the Orioles didn't give them an inch in the standings. They entered August with a 1.5-game lead over the Rays. They enter September with the same lead. Baltimore's schedule in the lead-up to the series is lighter, facing the Diamondbacks, Angels, Red Sox, and Cardinals before hosting the Rays. This will likely serve as a do-or-die series for both teams with the AL East on the line.
Can Josh Lowe finish his breakout season strong?
There have been plenty of strong performances this season throughout the lineup, but Josh Lowe has been one of the Rays' best and most consistent players. He's second on the team in doubles and stolen bases, third in batting average and RBIs, and fourth in home runs and hits. His service time was limited before this season, so he's never been a significant piece in a stretch run like this. He won't get the shine that others in the lineup will, but he could be the key to the Rays making a deep run in the postseason. A strong September would be an excellent precursor to that.
The road to October is not an easy one for the Rays. They'll face several teams either in playoff spots or contending for one in their final 28 games, with 15 against Boston, Toronto, and Baltimore. This isn't a matter of whether the Rays will make the postseason. It's more about when and where their run will begin. The final month of the season can be a crazy time. On Sept. 1, 2011, the Rays were 8.5 games out of a Wild Card spot before going on a magical run, capped off by the Game 162 walk-off by Evan Longoria. While it might not be as exciting as that was, this team can make waves and earn the franchise their first World Series, especially if they put themselves in a good spot to succeed in September.