Rays class of talented, deep AL East

Updated: July 1, 2008

J. Meric/Getty Images

Grant Balfour closed out Tuesday's win for the Rays, who improved their baseball-best record to 51-32.

BEASTS IN THE EAST

Two divisions stand out when talking about the toughest in baseball: the AL East and the NL Central. Both divisions have multiple teams with strong pitching staffs, excellent offenses, great managers and strong and effective leadership in the front office.

WEDNESDAY NIGHT BASEBALL

Red Sox at Rays, 7:10 p.m. ET, ESPN

The AL East takes the lead in this race, though, because of the presence of four teams above .500 (the one that isn't, Toronto, is one game below) and the fact that four of the five teams within the division entered play Tuesday with run differentials of at least plus-20.

Also, the top three teams in the AL East (Tampa Bay, Boston and New York) all have the talent to contend for a World Series this year. On the other hand, I think only two teams in the NL Central (Cubs and Brewers) truly are ready to make that big step.

There are several reasons why the AL East is the toughest division. First, the top teams in the division each have a good mix of youth and veteran leadership to get through the dog days of summer. Tampa Bay is the youngest of the teams in this group, but the addition of veterans such as Troy Percival and Cliff Floyd, who have been through the postseason fires, will help the Rays on those days when the season seems like it will never end. Boston and New York, meanwhile, have a excellent youth to offset age in the locker room and provide the fresh legs needed to get through those August days when the temperature on the field is hotter than 100 degrees and you aren't totally sure what city you are in until you look around the stadium.

These teams not only have excellent pitching staffs from the No. 1 starter to the bullpen, but also the type of depth in the farm system to bring up a player who can help them in a pinch if a pitcher is a little banged-up. Heck, Boston has a guy (Clay Buchholz) who threw a no-hitter last season in its farm system waiting to come back up and start throwing heat again.

Plus, there are some exciting offenses in the AL East that are hard to shut down on a game-by-game basis. Each one of these offenses has the ability to catch fire and start putting up eight or nine runs a night like it's nothing. These are patient teams at the plate, with the type of power in the middle of the lineup to make a pitcher pay if he makes a mistake.

The reason this division is so tough is because these teams have been built by exceptionally smart front offices that have the ability and assets to go out and acquire another starter or a big-time hitter if it comes down to it. They can and will go out and make a move.

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LATE-GAME LOCKDOWN

Tampa Bay's bullpen was shorthanded Tuesday with Troy Percival headed to the disabled list, but that posed no problem for Joe Maddon's team over the final two innings. J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour combined to shut the door on the Red Sox, extending Tampa Bay's American League East lead to 2½ games with a 3-1 win.

Even without Percival, the Rays' bullpen has been unbelievably good. Dan Wheeler leads the AL with 21 holds, and Howell and Balfour have been fantastic in their roles. The Rays might not have a lot of players make the All-Star team, but they've got a roster full of players making key contributions.

J.P Howell and Grant Balfour: A tale of two seasons
2007 2008
W-L 2-8 8-0
Saves 0 4
ERA .761 2.50
BA against .317 .176

FORWARD THINKING: WEDNESDAY

Joe Saunders • A's at Angels, 3:35 p.m. ET, ESPN: Joe Saunders (11-4, 3.06 ERA) cruised through the A's lineup the first time around, tossing eight shutout innings on April 29. Dana Eveland (6-5, 3.34 ERA), meanwhile, had his problems when he faced the Angels earlier this season, giving up seven hits and six runs in 5 1/3 innings.

Jorge Campillo • Phillies at Braves, 7 p.m. ET: Right-hander Jorge Campillo (3-2, 2.54 ERA) has actually dominated left-handed hitters, limiting them to a .179 batting average. Adam Eaton (2-6, 4.86 ERA) has lost his past three starts, giving up 27 hits in 18 2/3 innings.

Daisuke Matsuzaka • Red Sox at Rays, 7:10 p.m. ET, ESPN: Daisuke Matsuzaka (9-1, 3.21 ERA) has not lasted long in his four recent starts. He has not pitched more than 5 2/3 innings in any of those outings. Scott Kazmir (7-3, 2.28 ERA) has been masterful at home, where he is 4-1 with a 1.24 ERA.

Complete list of pitching probables for Wednesday's games


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BBTN ON THE AIR: WEDNESDAY

TIME WHO'S ON?
10 p.m. ET
ESPN
Host: Karl Ravech
Analysts: Steve Phillips, Fernando Vina
12 a.m. ET
ESPN
Host: Karl Ravech
Analysts: Steve Phillips, Fernando Vina

BBTN MINUTE: RAYS GO FOR SWEEP OF RED SOX

TUESDAY'S NOTEWORTHY PERFORMANCES

GOOD
Aaron CookAaron Cook continues to be a bright spot for the Rockies. He pitched a complete-game, five-hit shutout against the Padres and has 11 of the Rockies' 33 wins.
BAD
Joe BorowksiJoe Borowski was one out from picking up a save against the White Sox, then gave up a homer, a single, a stolen base and another single and got the loss.
UGLY
Randy JohnsonRandy Johnson didn't have one of his better nights, giving up eight hits, seven runs and three homers in 3 2/3 innings against the Brewers.

"TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALLGAME"

Ballgame It's the 100th anniversary of baseball's most famous tune, and "Baseball Tonight" has asked nine popular musical artists to record a rendition of the song to be used in a battle of the bands. Take a listen and vote on your favorite one. The top three vote-getters will be announced on July 6.

• Latest video: REO Speedwagon

FANTASY: PREVIEW OF WEDNESDAY'S GAMES

Sean Allen examines the pitching matchups in store for the 15 games on Wednesday's schedule of mostly interleague games.

Fantasy Allen also looks at injuries and details player reports that could help shape the way you put together your roster for Wednesday's games. Daily Notes

MLB INSIDERS

NEWS AND NOTES

Chris Young• Padres righty Chris Young, out since the end of May after having nasal surgery, could begin throwing off a mound next week and be back with the club by the end of July, according to manager Bud Black.

• The Twins didn't hit the ball in the air all that much against the Tigers. Minnesota grounded into five double plays Tuesday, tying its franchise record.

THIS DATE IN MLB HISTORY (JULY 2)

1941: On sweltering day in front of 52,832 fans at Yankee Stadium, Joe DiMaggio broke Wee Willie Keeler's record 45-game hitting streak with a three-run homer. Keeler set the record in 1897.

1978: With a 3-2 Yankee victory over the Tigers at Yankee Stadium, Ron Guidry improved his record to 13-0. It marked the best start in franchise history.

1986: The Blue Jays scored three runs in the eighth inning to beat the Red Sox and Roger Clemens 4-2. The loss prevented Clemens from getting a record-tying 15th consecutive winning decision.

2007: Clemens, then with the Yankees, became the eighth player in baseball history to win 350 games as New York defeated Minnesota. Clemens allowed one run on two hits over eight innings.