Will The Rays Hang Onto Their AL East Lead? | Sharapova's Thigh

No team has shocked the baseball world this season more than the Tampa Bay Rays. We knew they had a ton of young talent, but nobody could have
predicted that they'd come together this quickly and overtake the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees in the AL East.

For awhile, people kept saying how their youth, coupled with the likelihood of the Red Sox and Yankees really turning it on would ultimately prevent them from making the postseason. But the Rays kept winning, and it became difficult for anybody to doubt them anymore... until the injuries.

Rays left fielder and speedster Carl Crawford tore a tendon in his right middle finger last week, and had surgery on it yesterday. He's out at least for the regular season. This is a loss that will hurt the Rays, but they can certainly overcome it. They have plenty of outfielders that can fill in for him such as Eric Hinske, Gabe Gross, and Rocco Baldelli.

Really, Crawford wasn't even having a great year offensively anyway, hitting .273, with 8 homers, 57 RBI, a team-leading 69 runs, but an on-base percentage of only .319. In 482 plate appearances this year, he has 25 stolen bases. Compare that to last season when he had 627 plate appearances, but twice as many stolen bases with 50. He hasn't gotten on base enough to utilize his tremendous speed this year.

Defensively, they'll miss his ability to run down flyballs in left field. Eric Hinske will likely get the most action in left field with Crawford(pictured right) out, and be a big downgrade defensively. However, on the offensive end, he's having a solid year, particularly against right-handed pitching, and he likely won't even play against lefties. Against righties in 245 at bats, Hinske is hitting .276, with 16 homers, 46 RBI, and an OPS(on-base+ slugging %) of .915. I'd say that's actually a nice upgrade over what Crawford was doing at the plate. Overall, sure they'll miss Crawford's speed, defense, and of course the depth it provides for the outfield, but I don't see it costing them more than a game(if even) over the last month and a half.

Meanwhile, they lost their closer Troy Percival yesterday with a right knee injury. Percival was placed on the 15-day DL today, and he's likely to miss at least a few weeks. However, Percival's been on the DL a couple other times this season and the Rays were able to put Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour into the role and not miss a beat.

The 39-year-old Percival's done a great job as closer, converting 27 of 30 in save opportunities, with a 3.69 ERA. Dan Wheeler has 4 saves in 5 chances with a 2.61 ERA, and had 11 saves for the Astros last year, so he can do an admirable job in the role. But I think they should see what Balfour can do at closer, especially if Percival couldn't be ready for the playoffs which is a legitimate possibility. Balfour, a 30-year-old Australian, has been one of the most dominating relievers in baseball this season. In 37.1 innings pitched, he's struck out 55 hitters, and allowed only 5 earned runs, giving him an ERA of 1.21. So, the Rays should still be fine in the 8th and 9th innings with Wheeler and Balfour.

However, there's no doubt that the Rays will greatly miss their 22-year-old third baseman Evan Longoria(pictured top left). Longoria, the likely AL Rookie Of The Year, went down with a broken wrist last week and is expected to miss a few more weeks. They will not be able to replace his bat or glove. Longoria is the team leader in batting average(.278), RBI(78), and OPS(.885). He also has the best fielding percentage among AL third basemen, at .971. He's been replaced by Willy Aybar at third base, a .229 hitter. Needless to say, the Rays need Longoria back as soon as possible.

At 73-47, the Rays are currently 3 games ahead of the Red Sox in the AL East. So, with all of these injuries, will the Rays be able to maintain their lead and take the division crown? They certainly can, but I don't think they will. Their lineup is still solid, but I think these injuries will cost them at least a couple games, with the Longoria injury being the main reason. Plus, the Red Sox are really turning it on of late offensively, and I think they're going to make a big run to close out the season. Paul Byrd's been great in the second half and will be an upgrade at the end of their rotation.

But, the Rays still have the strength of their team healthy, the starting rotation. James Shields(10-7, 3.75 ERA), Scott Kazmir(8-6, 3.22 ERA), Matt Garza(9-8, 3.88 ERA), Andy Sonnanstine(12-6, 4.35 ERA), and Edwin Jackson(9-7, 4.07 ERA) forms arguably the best starting rotation in baseball. That will keep them in games, and prevent them from going through any slumps that could really hurt the confidence of such a young team.

In the end, I think the Rays are in the playoffs, but through the Wild Card. For a team that's already passed their franchise record for wins in a season, they'll take it. However, if they want to go far in the playoffs, they're definitely going to need at least Longoria back.

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