Postseason quest; can teams create separation?

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. —  In the need to create distance among contenders, theories abound. In nearly all discussions, though, it’s simply the ability to execute which determines champions. Sure, there’s a great deal of scoreboard watching, but ultimately, the bottom line is the ability to block distractions and perform.

Within the National League and American League wild-card races, and coming into play Labor Day weekend, a combined 10 teams are within 5.5 games of achieving a spot in post-season play. Perhaps the closest is in the American League where, coming into play Friday night, one game separated Cleveland, Oakland and Tampa Bay. Two of those clubs, the Indians and Rays, go head-to-head over the Labor Day weekend and the temptation to offer a clear explanation of how to create distance and margin.

Overall, that’s easier said than done, but Tampa Bay veteran starter Charlie Morton, coming into his next start Sunday here against Cleveland told Fancred before the opener of the Indians series in Tropicana Field, there is no answer than simply executing.

“Sure, the idea exists (to create separation), but the other teams have the same idea,” said Morton, who has post-season experience with Houston and Pittsburgh. “For example, the Astros are not sitting in the clubhouse going, ‘hey guys, we’re going to win none out of 10 and win 13 out of 15.’ There is a culture there and mentality that every day we come to the park and we’re going to battle. In the last game we played against (Houston on Aug. 29; Tampa Bay won 9-8), we go up and they answer back. We go back up and they answer back. That’s how teams like that create separation in their division. You see that with teams that have a 10, 11 game lead in the division.”

One traditional theory holds that no attention is paid to other teams within the chase. The concept claims that if team properly executes and does the things kinds of things destined to winning, then the season while evolves to the point of satisfaction.

Among teams in the race for post-season play, one or two players could rise with physical ability, character, and temperament to carry a team on their shoulders. Down the stretch here, the Rays could rely on outfielder Austin Meadows, though manager Kevin Cash emphasized to Fancred before Friday’s game, that he seeks contributions from all 25 team members. Still, Meadows, who was honored with a spot on the American League 2019 All-Star team, came into Friday’s game with the second-highest batting average (.276) on the team and only Eric Sogard (.300) was higher. More important, Meadows, only 24-years-old and a former first-round pick of the Pirates in 2013 draft, leads the Rays in homers, RBIs and extra-base hits.

Down the stretch, his focus remains simple and direct.

“We go out there to win and that’s the main goal,” Meadows told Fancred before Friday’s game. “We want to put good at-bats together and have guys pitch well. Things then click well. That’s what is important right now. If I go 0-for4 but we win the game, that’s what matters. If we win games, we know we can control our own destiny.”

Due back …

If the Rays need an emotional lift here in the final weeks, that will likely happen this weekend. That’s when centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier, a Gold Glove winner in 2015, returns to the lineup. On Aug. 25 against the Orioles in Baltimore, Kiermaier suffered a left rib cage contusion when he slammed into the center-field fence in Camden Yards, and has not played since.

Coming into Friday’s game, Kiermaier was hitting .242 with 19 stolen bases. His importance is an emotional presence in the clubhouse and “leader by example” mentality.

“It’s been a tough five or six days on me,” he told reporters in the Rays clubhouse before Friday’s game. “It’s behind me now and I don’t want to be a distraction to anyone or anything. I’m here to help this team win any way possible. I want to celebrate with these guys each and every night after all the wins. We try to rack up as many in the next month and keep this special season going for us. We’re in a great spot and I‘m excited to take to the field with these guys again.”

Keeping a watchful eye …

With a potentially catastrophic hurricane heading to Florida, there was discussion on whether, or if, the final two games of the Cleveland-Tampa Bay series would be played. By late Friday afternoon, projections indicated Hurricane Dorian was slowing and baseball in the Tampa Bay should continue without disruption.

In the wake of the hurricane, two options were discussed.

One was to move Sunday’s afternoon game to Saturday and the Indians and Rays would play a doubleheader. The other was to move Sunday’s game from the scheduled start time of 1:10 up one hour. As of game time Friday, the teams will play a single game Saturday starting at 6:10 Eastern and one on Sunday (1:10 Eastern).