EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

July 25, 2013

No doubt about it: Rays will be AL East champs

On Pro Baseball
Christopher Smith

---- — BOSTON — No matter who wins today’s series finale game between the Rays and Red Sox, I’ve already made up my mind.

The Rays are the better team and will win the American League East.

Yes, you heard it here first. Actually, to be completely honest, yours truly predicted the Toronto Blue Jays to win the AL East at the beginning of the year. But with a little more than two months left, the obvious choice is Tampa Bay. I have no doubts about it.

Yesterday started out as Dustin Pedroia’s big day here at Fenway Park.

Pedroia’s new eight-year deal became official at an on-the-field press conference with all in attendance, including owner John Henry and CEO/President Larry Lucchino.

Pedroia received hugs and handshakes left and right and was visited by Tampa second baseman Ben Zobrist, who walked over to the first base side after all calmed down to congratulate Pedroia. The two became friendly at the All-Star Game.

“I told him ‘You should be in this (Red Sox) uniform,’” Zobrist said.

But what started out as a happy day for Pedroia and the Red Sox ended with Rays ace David Price stealing the show and Tampa again pulling within a half game of the Boston Red Sox for first place in the AL East.

Pedroia went 0 for 4 with a strikeout. Price tossed a complete game. The Rays won 5-1 over Boston.

Do you hear those giant footsteps behind you, Red Sox? Those belong to Rays who were in last place June 23. Since then, they have gone 22-5 with a major league-best 2.21 ERA.

David Price’s effort last night — combined with Matt Moore’s complete-game shutout of Boston on Monday, did it for me. It made me realize just how powerful the Rays are and how they will be this division’s champion.

In the past 23 games started by Price, Moore, Jeremy Hellickson and Chris Archer, the Rays are 22-1.

How do you compete with that?

You can’t if you’re the Red Sox.

It all comes down to pitching and the Rays have the best staff in the AL East. They have two true aces/stoppers in Price and Moore and then four other starters, including injured Alex Cobb, who are really, really good.

Meanwhile, Boston’s only true stopper, Clay Buchholz, has been, by his own doing, on the DL since June 8 and continues to slowly ease his way back while his team is about to sink to second.

Tampa is dominant in every facet of the game right now. Rays fielders have made just six total errors over their past 25 games. That’s the fewest in the majors during that stretch.

The team’s hot steak also has corresponded with the promotion of 22-year-old phenom right fielder Wil Myers, who played his first big league game June 18 here at Fenway Park.

Rays manager Joe Maddon is batting the kid cleanup and Myers is producing like a cleanup hitter should. He is hitting .322 with a .351 on-base percentage, five homers and 21 RBIs. He was 2 for 4 with a walk and two RBIs last night.

“I think it (Myers’ promotion) was one of the contributing factors,” Rays DH Luke Scott said, discussing the Rays’ surge. “There’s been a lot of talk about him and there’s a lot of expectations on him but he’s handled it well and he’s done a great job for us. He’s gotten big hits. He’s had great at-bats. He’s fit in well in our lineup.”

Myers has had a tremendous time playing for Maddon, who remains, in my estimation, the quirkiest but best manager in baseball. (John Farrell and Terry Francona aren’t far behind this year).

“You feel like he’s your friend but everybody respects him as a manger,” Myers said about Maddon.

If you’re a Red Sox fan, you should hate the Rays more than the Yankees right now. Actually, the Rays arguably have been as big a Red Sox rival since 2008 as the Yankees have been. The Yankees have combined to win 532 games since ‘08. The Rays aren’t too far behind with 518 victories, which is 19 more than the Red Sox over that span.

The Rays eventually will pull away, even if the Red Sox win tonight. Mark it down.

Follow Eagle-Tribune baseball reporter Christopher Smith on Twitter @SmittyOnMLB.