BusinessBy Clinching Playoff Spots Orioles And Rays Set Standard...

By Clinching Playoff Spots Orioles And Rays Set Standard In AL East


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Two years ago after the Yankees saw tedious struggle of a 2021 season ended with a 6-2 loss at Fenway Park, manager Aaron Boone said something along the lines about the gap being closed on his team.

As the disappointing 2023 season heads into the final two weeks very likely without the Yankees playing beyond Oct. 1, exhibits A and B of the gap closing on the Yankees are the Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays, who found themselves in the unique position of clinching playoff spots on the same day while opposing each other.

The marking in the standings next to Baltimore and Tampa Bay indicate those teams are for the time being the standard bearer in the AL East, a division often described by some as a “beast” or the toughest division in baseball.

The reality for all the things to go wrong to doom the Yankees to watching the entire postseason on TV (assuming they actually do watch the games) is the Rays and Orioles set the standard from the outset.

It is why they are celebrating officially punching their tickets to the expanded playoff format by the Orioles spraying each other with beer and champagne and wearing clothing with the annual slogan of the postseason while a few members of the Rays engaged a quieter ceremony. This year the designated slogan is “Take October”. Last year in case you were wondering, the Yankees were handed t-shirts reading “The East is ours” when they clinched at Toronto after blowing about half of a 15 1/2 game lead.

It will be another week or so until Baltimore or Tampa Bay wears shirts with a similar slogan in its second celebration and when it does happen, the party for being a division champion will further cement those teams as the standard the Yankees and the rest of the division follows.

The Yankees were in first place after opening day and that’s it.

With among the better offenses led by Yandy Diaz and Randy Arozarena, the Rays sped out to a 13-0 record, have owned a share of the lead 99 times. They lost it by dropping three of four at home to Baltimore July 20-23 right around the time the Yankees swept the Royals and took a good first step towards an improvement that never materialized. Tampa Bay dropped as far back as four games but moved into a tie by winning the first two this weekend before Baltimore got the split.

“I can’t say that I’m too thrilled right now. Give it a little time, maybe,” Tampa Bay reliever Pete Fairbanks told reporters. “It’s obviously something. We know that we’re there, and now it’s time to focus on what we really want.”

Still with Tampa Bay nearing 95 wins and possibly getting to 100, it would be hard to not be confident in them against the fifth seed in Texas, Toronto or Seattle. While Seattle boasts the best pitching of the three, its offense could be too inconsistent and at times it seems like the Rangers or Blue Jays cannot get out of their own way.

Baltimore has held the lead or a share of it 63 times. The Orioles reached 10 games over .500 by winning 19 of their first 28 to keep pace with the scorching Rays, were 33-17 after taking two of three in their first visit to the Yankees right before Memorial Day. After losing two in New York July 3-4, the Orioles were 49-35 while the Yankees were 49-39 but they won eight straight and took over the lead with a 21-7 run.

The Orioles reaching the point of clinching at least a postseason berth is the culmination of extensive rebuilding process that began at the trade deadline in 2018 in the final months under Buck Showalter and four years after they reached the ALCS for the first time since 1997. It led to two seasons with at least 110 losses but also access to high draft picks that the Orioles hit on with Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson along with Grayson Rodriguez and mixed them nicely with holdovers from the Dan Duquette era in Cedric Mullins, Austin Hays and Anthony Santander.

“Look at this, man,” Orioles manager Brandon Hyde told reporters. “It’s what it’s all about. You just want to see the guys you grind with every day enjoy, especially after so many guys had tough years, you know?”

After a slow start last year, the Orioles captivated observers with a double-dight winning streak around the All-Star break and finishing with 83 wins, setting the stage for even more success or as Pat Riley used to say with the Lakers, “The Innocent Climb”.

For the Rays, this is a continuation of what they’ve been doing fairly consistently since reaching the World Series in 2008 to cap their first winning season in team history. Since then the Rays only endured four losing seasons when they were transitioning from Joe Maddon to Kevin Cash as manager.

Since an 80-win 2017, the Rays have finished first twice and won at least 86 in every 162-game season. It has translated to mixed postseason success with a World Series trip in 2020 but losses in the division series in 2019 and 2021 and a loss in the wildcard round last year.

Given where the Yankees are, the Rays and Orioles are in an enviable position and the evolution of the division has them setting the standard for the time being.



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