There are three FANTASTIC looking series this weekend. First, we have the only intraleague matchup of the weekend between the first place Cardinals and the first place Dodgers. There's the Beltway Series, between the first place Orioles and second place Nationals. And then there is the series I've tabbed as this weekend's Series Spotlight, between the first place Braves and the second place Rays. Why did I choose this series? Well, I've featured the Orioles a good bit in the last couple of weeks, and the last time I featured the Cardinals, the Braves beat their brains in. Plus, I haven't featured the Rays for quite awhile, so I figured I was overdue to give them some love.
The Braves have been cruising this season against top competition, sweeping the Cardinals in St Louis last weekend to finish off a 7-2 road trip, and taking two out of three in LA against the Dodgers last month as part of a 5-2 west coast road trip. The Braves 14-8 road record is one of the best in the league, which doesn't mesh with conventional wisdom. They'll be going up against the Rays, who have kept their heads above water despite a number of injuries, most notably to third baseman Evan Longoria, left fielder Desmond Jennings, and starting pitcher Jeff Niemann. It's been an odd month for the Rays, who have had a pair of three-game losing streaks, as well as a four-game and six-game winning streak this month. In what is perhaps good news for the Braves, the Rays lost last night to the Red Sox.
The pitching matchups in this series seem to favor Tampa Bay, with the overall state of disappointment that Atlanta's staff has given off this season. However, while the Braves best starter (Brandon Beachy) isn't pitching this weekend, their worst one (Mike Minor) is also not pitching. Game one will see Rays innings eater James Shields take on Braves enigma Tommy Hanson. Shields has gone at least six innings in seven of eight starts this year, and has struck out at least five hitters in six of those eight. He's on a little bit of a downslide lately though, allowing a total of seven homers over his last four starts, and pitching to a 4.44 ERA. His opponent, Hanson, has been a much different pitcher from Shields. While Hanson has struck out nearly a batter per inning (43 in 44 2/3 innings), he's struggled with efficiency, only going six or more innings in four of his eight starts. Hanson's been good, with a 3.43 ERA and 3.91 FIP, but just hasn't blown the barn doors off like many expected.
Game two pits Alex Cobb in his first start of the year against inexperienced Braves starter Randall Delgado. This season in AAA Durham, Cobb struck out 44 in 41 1/3 innings, walking 18 in the process. Last season in the majors, Cobb made nine starts and threw 52 2/3 innings, striking out 37 and walking 21. If Cobb is able to replicate his strikeout per inning mark that he's shown in the minors over the last couple of years, he can be an absolutely dominant force. If not, he's still a damn good pitcher, just with less upside. As for Delgado, he's been effective, but not outstanding. He's struck out 35 while walking 18 in 40 1/3 innings, and knocked his ERA under 4.00 since his first start of the season in his last time out against the Reds.
Game three pits the Rays' ace, David Price, against the elder statesman of Atlanta's staff, Tim Hudson. Price has been his usual awesome self this year at age 26, coming off of back to back four win seasons. He's struck out 45 while walking just 15 in 52 1/3 innings, and has a great 3.10 ERA. The 3.21 FIP and 3.24 xFIP this season are the best marks of his career, even with his strikeout rate dropping from last year. Hudson has only made four starts this year for the Braves since missing the first three weeks of the season following offseason back surgery. Hudson has been his typical self, throwing 25 innings of 3.96 ERA ball, striking out 16 while walking seven, and getting ground balls at a rate of 58.2%. Subtract one awful start in Colorado, and Hudson is looking damn good right now.
Atlanta's offense has been, quite frankly, awesome. The only starter with an OPS below .750 is light-hitting rookie shortstop Tyler Pastornicky, at .671. The other seven starters are clustered in a 100 point spread between .870 and .770, with Chipper Jones and his .863 OPS leading the pack. With the games in Tampa, Atlanta will have the ability to utilize a DH in this series. The game on DH will be former Ray Eric Hinske, who has an .819 OPS in part-time duty for the Braves this year. I'd expect the Braves to use Chipper Jones at DH on Saturday against Cobb, and let Juan Francisco (who cannot hit lefties under any circumstance) play third, while Hinske should return to the role on Sunday against the left-handed Price.
The Rays don't have a lineup that's been nearly as consistent as Atlanta's, but they've still been pretty good. The Rays have a lot of moving parts with Longoria and Jennings out, and are going on an interesting route. Minor league veteran Rich Thompson got the start for Jennings in left last night, and went 1/3 with an RBI and a pair of stolen bases. Longoria has been replaced in the lineup since his injury primarily by Sean Rodriguez, who has a .647 OPS on the year, with Eliot Johnson and his .754 OPS replacing Rodriguez at shortstop. Second base has been manned by both Will Rhymes and Ben Zobrist, who is also platooning in right field with Matt Joyce, who also plays in left field. Confused yet? Yeah, try not to think about it. The Rays have no offense behind the plate, normally manned by Jose Molina and Chris Gimenez, but Carlos Pena has started every game at first base, and BJ Upton has been the primary center fielder since missing some of April. DH is another platoon, this time between Jeff Keppinger and Luke Scott. Keppinger has also gotten time at second and third. Confused yet? Yeah, that's how Joe Maddon rolls. In summary: Tampa Bay has a .744 team OPS, 45 homers, and 29 stolen bases. They're not great, but they're complete.
After writing up the Rays offense, my head hurts a lot. Anyway, it's time for a pick. Tampa Bay has been ravaged by injuries lately, while Atlanta has pretty much been rolling along with the same roster all year. The Braves have been beating up all contenders in their path lately, while the Rays have been hit or miss. I'm going to say that Atlanta takes two out of three in the series, only losing the finale with Price on the hill for the Rays.
Photos courtesy of Daylife.com