The Week Ahead: Last chance for Rays

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rays_090906.jpgWith apologies to the Philadelphia Phillies, the Tampa Bay Rays were the story of the postseason last year. They were the plucky little low-budget engine that could, discarding all comers — including mighty Boston in the ALCS — until meeting up with the eventual champions in the World Series.

They’ve still got a nice ballclub, entering the week at 72-64 and possessing the best team ERA in the AL East. But alas it hasn’t been enough to keep up with the division bullies known as the Yankees and Red Sox.

(Go here for a nice breakdown of all the playoff races)

If ever there was a week to rediscover the magic of 2008, this would be it. They can forget about catching the Yankees, who they trail by 14 1/2 games. And sitting 7 games behind the AL wild-card leading Red Sox, things are looking bleak. Also in the mix are the Texas Rangers, who are three games behind Boston, and four ahead of Tampa Bay.

But with all of that considered, the Rays still have a chance to make a move, but they have to do it now. They head to the Bronx for a four-game set against the Yankees, including a double-header on Monday. Then over the weekend they’ll be in Fenway for three games against the Red Sox.

A mediocre showing won’t be enough. They have to get hot. They have to go on a streak and gain some ground.

After this week, the Rays will only have 19 games left to play this season. If they’re still sitting 7 games back in the wild card chase, they can start making fishing plans. The Trop won’t be rocking in October.

It won’t be terribly surprising if the Rays fail, but it will still be a little sad. Everyone likes to root for an underdog. But the Rays’ run in the spotlight might be just about finished. Always facing budget issues, the Rays will have to make decisions on Carl Crawford ($10 million option), Akinori Iwamura ($4.35 million option) and Jason Bartlett (arbitration), among others this offseason.

Is the Rays’ dream over? Anything less than a huge week could prove it so.

FIVE SERIES TO WATCH
Rays at Yankees, Sept. 7-9:
Garza vs. Sabathia kicks off this key series, which begins with a doubleheader on Monday. The Rays are 5-6 against the Yankees this season.

Mariners at Angels, Sept. 8-10: The Mariners have made a nice run this season, but any serious thoughts at contending could end this week. After this series, Seattle heads to Texas.

Mets at Phillies, Sept. 11-13: Will the Mets collapse again late this season and surrender the division to the Phillies? Oh wait, that was last year. Yeah, I wouldn’t expect too much trash talk this time around.

Dodgers at Giants, Sept. 11-13: The Giants may be too far behind to catch L.A. But there’s still the wild-card chase, making this a huge series in San Francisco.

Rays at Red Sox, Sept. 11-13: It’s sort of become a mini-rivalry over the last couple seasons, but while the Rays remain a winning team, they remain a distant third in the AL East. Is there time to rediscover the magic?

ON THE TUBE
Wednesday, 7:05 p.m.: Rays at Yankees (ESPN)
Wednesday, 10:10 p.m.: Dodgers at Diamondbacks (ESPN)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: White Sox at Angels (FOX)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.:  Mets at Phillies (FOX)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.:  Braves at Cardinals (FOX)
Sunday, 4 p.m.: Dodgers at Giants (TBS)
Sunday, 8:05 p.m.: Mets at Phillies (ESPN)
*Check local listings

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If you Twitter, you can find me there at @Bharks.

Sanchez hits another home run, Yankees rout Orioles 13-5

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NEW YORK (AP) Rookie Gary Sanchez kept up a most remarkable run, homering for the third straight game as the New York Yankees routed the Baltimore Orioles 13-5 Saturday.

Sanchez hit a drive that bounced off the top of the right-center field wall and over in the fourth inning. He reached 11 career home runs faster than anyone in major league history – 23 games, including two hitless games last year.

After the switch-hitting catcher connected, the crowd of 38,843 emphatically chanted his name. Mark Teixeira stepped out of the batter’s box, pausing the game and allowing the 23-year-old to tip his batting helmet to the fans from the top of the dugout steps.

Starlin Castro and Aaron Hicks also homered as the Yankees won their fourth in a row. A day after trouncing the Orioles 14-4, New York moved within 2 1/2 games of them for the second AL wild-card spot.

Chris Davis homered twice and Mark Trumbo hit his big league-leading 39th home run for Baltimore, which has dropped three straight.

Sanchez is now hitting .400 with 21 RBIs in 21 games this year.

Castro had four hits and drove in three runs, Hicks also drove in three runs and Brian McCann got three hits and drove in two.

Every Yankees starter has gotten a hit in back-to-back games for the first time since July 26-27, 2009.

Tommy Layne (1-1) pitched a scoreless inning for the win.

Dylan Bundy (7-5) gave up five runs in four innings.

The Yankees got 18 hits and drew seven walks. For all that offensive output, it was a disputed play on the bases that put them ahead.

Baltimore led 2-1 in the third when with two outs, singles by Teixeira, Didi Gregorius and Castro brought home the tying run.

With runners at the corners, Castro broke for second. Catcher Matt Wieters‘ throw was then cut off by shortstop J.J. Hardy as Gregorius tried to steal home.

Hardy’s throw appeared to be in time, but Gregorius neatly tucked in his right arm and extended his left arm across home plate.

Umpire Ron Kulpa called Gregorius out, but the Yankees challenged and the ruling was overturned. After the review, McCann hit an RBI double for a 4-2 lead.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Yankees: McCann returned to the starting lineup after being away following the death of his grandmother.

Orioles: CF Adam Jones was held out of the lineup after aggravating his hamstring injury on Friday. He tried to talk his way into starting, manager Buck Showalter said.

UP NEXT

Orioles: RHP Kevin Gausman (5-10, 3.92 ERA) is set to make his fourth start this season against the Yankees. He’s 0-1 in the previous three outings despite a 1.31 ERA.

Yankees: LHP CC Sabathia (8-10, 4.33) was originally scheduled to pitch Monday in Kansas City. But manager Joe Girardi made a switch, starting Sabathia instead of RHP Michael Pineda. Manager Joe Girardi cited Baltimore’s better numbers against right-handed pitching and the Royals’ success vs. lefties.

Urias matures on mound in Dodgers’ 3-2 win over Cubs

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LOS ANGELES (AP) Julio Urias allowed one run over six innings, Corey Seager set a Dodgers franchise record for a shortstop with his 23rd home run and Los Angeles defeated the Chicago Cubs 3-2 on Saturday to even the series between NL division leaders.

Urias (5-2) pitched better at home than the last time he faced the Cubs. The rookie left-hander made his second career start in Chicago on June 2 and gave up six runs – five earned – and eight hits in five innings while serving up three homers.

This time, he allowed six hits and tied a career high with eight strikeouts and two walks. He is 4-0 in six games (four starts) since the All-Star break.

Kenley Jansen pitched a perfect ninth for his 38th save a day after allowing a run on a wild pitch in the ninth in a 6-4, 10-inning loss.

The Cubs’ four-game winning streak ended behind the shortest outing of the season from Jason Hammel (13-7). He gave up three runs and five hits in 2 1/3 innings.

The right-hander was coming off a poor performance against Colorado, allowing a season-high 10 runs (six earned) in 3 1/3 innings of an 11-4 loss. Hammel remained winless in nine career games (six starts) at Dodger Stadium.

The Cubs’ rally in the seventh came up short. They got to 3-2 on pinch-hitter Jason Heyward‘s RBI single off reliever Pedro Baez.

Heyward got caught stealing, and Baez walked Dexter Fowler and Kris Bryant before getting Anthony Rizzo on an inning-ending grounder.

Los Angeles took a 3-1 lead in the third on RBI singles by Chase Utley and Justin Turner. Utley’s hit was the third straight given up by Hammel to start the inning.

Seager tied the game at 1 in the first, giving him the most homers by a Dodgers shortstop in franchise single-season history. He broke the old mark of 22 set by Glenn Wright in 1930.

The Cubs led 1-0 in the first on Rizzo’s RBI single.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Cubs: RHP John Lackey (right shoulder strain) will throw a bullpen session on Monday in Chicago.

Dodgers: OF Scott Van Slyke won’t play again this season. He’s on the DL with right wrist irritation after being out nearly two months earlier in the season with low back irritation. “He doesn’t have the range of motion he needs to contribute,” manager Dave Roberts said. … LHP Clayton Kershaw (mild disk irritation) will face hitters in a simulated game on Tuesday in Los Angeles, Rancho Cucamonga or Arizona.

AT THE TURNSTILES

The announced attendance of 49,522 pushed the Dodgers over the 3 million mark for the fifth consecutive year and made them the first team in the majors to top that number this season.

DAY TRIPPIN’

The game featured the major leagues’ top two clubs in day games. The Dodgers improved to 24-11, while the Cubs fell to 38-21. Los Angeles came in averaging over a run more during the day (5.56) than at night (4.17).

UP NEXT

Cubs: LHP Jon Lester (14-4, 2.81 ERA) is 1-1 with a 4.05 ERA in two career starts at Dodger Stadium. The team is 7-0 in his last seven starts.

Dodgers: RHP Brock Stewart (0-2, 11.25) makes his third career major league start after being recalled from Triple-A Oklahoma City on Friday. He last pitched on Aug. 19 against Albuquerque, allowing four hits in five scoreless innings.