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.

Jose Canseco to join NBC Sports California as an A’s analyst

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Hey, I have a new coworker: Jose Canseco has been hired by NBC Sports California as an Athletics pregame analyst.

OK, maybe he’s not technically a coworker, as the folks at NBC Sports California — formerly CSN Bay Area — and I do not hang out at the water cooler, have potlucks in the conference room or exchange secret Santa gifts at Christmas time, but dang it, I’m gonna TELL people I work with Jose Canseco. The only downside will be people assuming that, because he and I are on the same team, my performance is something less than authentic. Or, perhaps, Canseco may write another book and tell all of my secrets.

Anyway, Canseco will be part of NBC Sports California’s A’s Pregame Live and A’s Postgame Live shows. Live TV can be hard. I’ve done a bit of it, and there is certainly more to that gig than meets the eye. You can’t always prepare for what happens on the fly. I’m sure Canseco will do well, however, as he’s great with coming up with the best stuff off the top of his head.

2017 Preview: Cleveland Indians

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Cleveland Indians.

The Cleveland Indians almost won the World Series without their best hitter for the whole season and two of their starting pitchers for the playoffs. This year that hitter — Michael Brantley — is back and the starters — Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar — are healthy. Oh, and they added arguably the best free agent bat available in Edwin Encarnacion.

Baseball teams love to downplay their expectations, but given where the Indians are at the moment, anything less than another American League Pennant will have to feel like a disappointment, right? Fortunately for the Indians, they stand as the favorites to do just that.

They didn’t lose much in the offseason. Yes, World Series hero Rajai Davis is gone, but the Indians outfield will be fine if Brantley remains healthy. Mike Napoli‘s loss will be felt but it will be made up for with Encarnacion’s bat and probably then some. Coco Crisp left too, but he was not a key part of the equation.

The biggest losses are guys from last year who will start the year on the disabled list, most notably Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall. Kipnis is just starting to work out following time off to rest his sore shoulder. Chisenhall ran into a wall the other day and is being evaluated. There is no sense that either will miss extended time, however.

Otherwise, the lineup should score a lot of runs, with on-base machines Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor setting the table for Encarnacion, Brantley and Carlos Santana, who is entering his walk year. The Indians trailed only the Red Sox in runs scored in the American League last year and they should score a lot of runs this year as well.

The strength of the club, however, remains its pitching. Corey Kluber looked like his old Cy Young self last year, particularly in the playoffs. Danny Salazar built on his excellent 2015 season in the first half before falling prey to injury. Carlos Carrasco posted an ERA+ of 141 before breaking his hand and Josh Tomlin and Trevor Bauer both stood out for fourth and fifth starters.

The bullpen is excellent too, as relief ace Andrew Miller is joined by Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and newcomer Boone Logan make up one of the relief corps in baseball.

Pitcher health is probably the biggest uncertainty for any contender, but the Indians have the best pitching in the AL if everyone stays healthy. And maybe even if one or two guys don’t.

It’s hard to find much fault with the 2017 Cleveland Indians. They are the class of their division and, while the slog of the regular season turns a lot of surefire contenders into hash before it’s all said and done, there is no reason to look at the Indians right now and think of them as anything other than the best team in the American League.

Prediction: First place, American League Central.