The Red Sox had their Wild Card lead cut from 6-1/2 games to 3-1/2 this weekend, thanks to a three-game sweep by the Rays where Boston was outscored 22 to 8. This pushed the Red Sox losing streak to five games, and they are now just 2-9 in September, mirroring in many ways their 2-10 start to the year where nothing went right for them.
The team is clearly better than either of those stretches, but baseball is the kind of game that likes to take what you know about a team and twist it into any of its possibilities, not just give you a straight path from what the team should be on paper to a clean result everyone can predict. Because of this, you'll see great teams play even better than they are, the reason the Red Sox played with a nearly .700 winning percentage -- a 113-win pace -- for most of the middle of the year. It's also why even great teams are susceptible to awful stretches like the one Boston is currently mired in. It doesn't mean they are a bad team, it just means that recently, they have been playing poorly. It's a long season, and these things happen.
All this is meant to say "Don't Panic." You can be disgusted, you can be angry, you can be upset, annoyed, depressed, really, any number of emotions that show your distaste with the month of September to this point, but don't panic. The road ahead of Tampa Bay is a hard one, and even though they cut Boston's lead nearly in half in one weekend, they still have a long way to go. The 3-1/2 game deficit doesn't seem that large until you realize they have just 17 games in which to make it up.
A look at their schedule shows why they may have a hard time completing this comeback feat in its entirety, even if Boston were to lose their next four games against Tampa Bay as well. Boston has two left against the Blue Jays, those four [thanks for pointing out I was missing a Monday game] against the Rays, three more against the Yankees, and a possible saving grace, seven left against last-place Baltimore. The Rays, on the other hand, have just three against the Orioles, the Red Sox once more this upcoming weekend, one series left against the Jays, and seven against the division-leading Yankees.
Thanks to the Yankees also losing four in a row, failing to put the Red Sox and Rays safely in the rear view mirror, they are in almost as much danger as Boston at this stage. Which is to say, not a whole lot, but the chance exists for them that something will go amiss, too. They are 3-1/2 up on Boston and seven up on the Rays, with 10 combined games left against the two teams. The Rays may very well need to steamroll New York to get to Boston, but unless Boston helps by losing simultaneously, the only team who may be hurt in this is New York.
Of course, their lead is large enough to withstand a late-season slump, as they are 99.9 percent to make the playoffs at this point -- Tampa Bay has just a 0.1 percent chance of taking the division, as they would need to sweep New York and get a hand from Boston, too. As it stands, they have just a three percent chance of taking the Wild Card from Boston according to Baseball Prospectus's playoff odds. Think of it this way: were Boston to go 8-8 the rest of the way, splitting the remaining 16 games and finishing with a record of 93-69, the Rays would need to go 13-4 to beat them. Should Boston go 9-7, the Rays need to go 14-3, and so on.
Neither of those things is impossible. Teams have stretches where they go 13-4 often, whether they are talented clubs or not, just like teams can go 2-10 or 2-9 even when they are much better than that kind of performance. The thing is, that kind of dominating stretch is about the only thing that will get Tampa Bay in to October over the Red Sox. They have a three percent chance right now, and with each Rays' victory and Red Sox' loss, that chance will grow, but given the road ahead for both clubs, betting on anyone other than Boston would be premature with as much season left to go as there is.
Save the panic for the last week if it merits it, but for now, just be glad there is an off day so that the bullpen -- and our psyches -- can rest.