I was considering four matchups for this series spotlight. Two of them featured the teams included in the last series spotlight. One was a matchup I had already looked at. The fourth matchup features a team I have written about extensively in series spotlights, and a team under .500. After giving it some thought, I decided to go with this Blue Jays-Rays matchup, just because I haven't done a spotlight on the Blue Jays yet this year, and because they actually have the best run differential in the AL East. Some love for that seems like a necessity at this point.
When you think of the Toronto Blue Jays, offense is usually the first thing to come to mind. And sure enough, Toronto's 200 runs are the second highest in the AL East, and the third highest in the American League. But yet, their .722 OPS in 12th, their .313 OBP is 19th, and their .241 batting average is 24th...huh? Well, this is where Toronto's advantage is: homers. The Blue Jays have smacked 57 homers this season, fourth most in baseball. Now, while that's not an absolute barometer for runs scored, there are six teams with at least 50 homers this year, and four of them have at least 200 runs. It is what it is.
The Blue Jays offense has been largely stagnant this year on a rate stat standpoint, with just one starter having an OPS above .800 (Edwin Encarnacion at .897). However, in May, three starters have an OPS above .800, including catcher JP Arencibia (six homers in May) and outfielder Jose Bautista (eight homers in May). The Blue Jays made a tweak to their offense by demoting first baseman Adam Lind to AAA Las Vegas last week, and promoting Yan Gomes, who is 4/10 with a homer and two walks in four games in the majors this. Starters like Colby Rasmus and Eric Thames continue to struggle offensively for Toronto, but their jobs appear safe - for now.
Toronto's three starters in this series are Kyle Drabek, Drew Hutchison, and Ricky Romero. Drabek will start tonight's game, and appears to be the same guy as ever, struggling with his control but also showing the potential to dominate hitters. This month, Drabek has allowed nine runs in 16 1/3 innings, walking 13 and striking out 12. Yep, typical Drabek. Game two will be started by 21 year-old rookie Drew Hutchison, who has largely held his own this season. He's won his last two starts, allowing just one run over six innings in each. Hutchison also exhibited his first bout of command problems in those two starts, walking four hitters in each game after walking a total of six in his first four starts. The series finale on Wednesday will be started by Ricky Romero, who has seen his strikeout rate fall and his walk rate rise this year, a combination that signifies trouble. However, he's still gone at least five innings in every start this year, and has only allowed more than three runs just three times. The underlying peripherals signify trouble brewing, but Romero has survived thusfar.
The Rays are coming off their first home series loss of the series, coming at the hands of the Braves. Without Evan Longoria and Desmond Jennings recently, their offense has struggled. They lack the high impact bat like Longoria, and as a result, their bit players are having to pick up the slack. They are, to an extent. Matt Joyce, Sean Rodriguez, and Ben Zobrist each have three homers in May, while Eliot Johnson (Longoria's main replacement) has two, along with five stolen bases. Veterans BJ Upton, Luke Scott, and Carlos Pena are struggling, though.
Pitching for the Rays this series will be Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, and James Shields. Hellickson has a 2.77 ERA this year, but has allowed eight homers in 48 2/3 innings, which is much too high of a rate. He's 4-0 on the season though, and has allowed more than three runs in a start just once. Moore has struggled vastly this year, with an "if it's not one thing, it's another" type of problem. In 45 innings, he's allowed eight homers and walked 23. His last start against the Red Sox on Thursday was one of his better outings this year, as Moore went six innings and allowed three runs, two homers, one walk, and eight strikeouts. Pitch counts have been a problem too, as Moore hasn't been able to complete the seventh inning once this year. The veteran James Shields will be starting on Wednesday, and he's coming off of back to back four run outings. Shields is striking out nearly a batter per inning, but like Hellickson and Moore, has allowed eight homers this year. He's thrown more innings than both though, tallying 59 2/3 this year. Shields has also thrown at least five innings in every start, and at least six in all but one.
I really don't know which direction to go with picks for this series. For as iffy as the Rays starters have looked so far this year, the Blue Jays' starters have looked equally as bad. Toronto's got the much better, and hotter, offense right now though. I'm going to say that the Rays sweep the series. I really have that little confidence in Toronto's starters right now, and while Tampa Bay's rotation doesn't give me much relief, I'd rather have any of their three over any of Toronto's trio.
Photos courtesy of Daylife.com