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AL East: The Great Race

   by Ben Burns - 07/01/2008

There’s nothing unusual about a great pennant race in the American League East. The last decade has seen races between the Red Sox and Yankees, and at times even the Blue Jays. All three are known for stocking up during the offseason on free agents. However, the one thing unusual about the 2008 AL East race is the new kid on the block: Tampa Bay!

The young Rays are hungry and motivated. They are also for real, with the kind of pitching staff built for the long haul of a 162-game season. They may not be etched in the history of big league lexicon, but who wouldn’t want a rotation of Scott Kazmir, James Shields, Matt Garza, Edwin Jackson and Andy Sonnanstine?

Perhaps even more impressive is their ages: 24, 26, 24, 24 and 25! The bullpen has been outstanding behind J.P. Howell, Gary Glover, Dan Wheeler and Trever Miller. Throw in an offense with speed and power with talents like B.J. Upton and Carl Crawford, and this has been the best story of the season.

Twenty-two year old third baseman Evan Longoria became the first Rays rookie to take player of the week honors after hitting .433 (13-for-30) with five doubles, three homers and 10 RBIs last week against Florida and Pittsburgh.

The Rays play in a small, hitter-friendly park in Tampa, yet the pitching and defense has been so improved they surprised oddsmakers, starting 29-14 under the total at home. So can they stay in the race? Based on all that quality pitching depth, you would think so. Everyone likes underdogs and the Rays are a dog to root for in 2008.

Behind the young upstarts is big bad Boston, the defending champs. They’ve won two of the last four World Series and have a deadly combination right now of a high payroll and talented young players popping out of the farm system.

The Red Sox have actually played very well, better than many expected, considering all their problems. Curt Schilling was penciled in as the No. 3 starter, yet won’t pitch an inning because of an injured shoulder. No. 2 starter Daisuke Matzusaka just came back from missing a few weeks with a a tired arm, while star slugger David Ortiz hasn’t played since May 31 because of a torn tendon sheath in his left wrist. That’s a lot of key players on the shelf. Throw in the fact that they opened the season with a brutal schedule, playing in Japan, and this team has been great and is likely to get better. The main concern is their road play, starting 19-25 on the road.

The Yankees are hoping to make a second half run, sitting 6 games out of first. But they are also just 5 games over .500 with all kinds of problems, especially with the starting pitching. Unlike Tampa Bay, there is a lot of age with this team.

Their best pitcher, Chien-Ming Wang (8-2), is on the shelf until September with an ankle injury. Starters Andy Pettitte (age 36) and Mike Mussina (39) have given up more hits than innings pitched, while kids Dan Rasner, Ian Kennedy, Phil Hughes and Kei Igawa have had problems. Adding Joba Chamberlain to the rotation seems to be their best hope and the kid has won 4 starts in a row.

The Yankees continue to be an under machine, at 48-31 under for the season and 7-3 the last 10 games. They are barely over .500 at home, offering excellent wagering value as a go-against favorite at Yankee Stadium. Said new manager Joe Girardi on the Yanks' losing the Subway Series to the Mets: "We came out with great energy. We just didn't hit." They’d better get better offensively, as one has to wonder about this pitching staff. If the playoffs started today the Yankees wouldn’t be in it for the first time since 1994.

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