ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Their music was silent. The eager postgame activity throughout the Tampa Bay Rays clubhouse, a constant in their nine games before Sunday, was absent. The dominant sound was the distant flow of showers.
The Rays, of course, were never going to win all of their remaining games this season. Their recent burst, a streak that began with two wins against the Toronto Blue Jays at Tropicana Field to three in Minneapolis to two in St. Louis to two against the Boston Red Sox back home, was an uncommon break from baseball’s humbling ways.
Now, with a pair of playoff contenders prepared to become the Rays’ guests for the next six games of this homestand, Tampa Bay can’t allow a 3-2 loss to the Red Sox on Sunday to become two straight or three or more. The Milwaukee Brewers and the Los Angeles Angels, both October dreamers, stand waiting.
"Two out of three ain’t bad," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "We weren’t going to win the rest of the games this year, I promise you. I was hoping we would, but I just didn’t think it was going to happen."
Maddon said that statement no different than a parent might when trying to provide perspective for a child. Yes, it’s too bad that you couldn’t finish three desserts after lunch, but two will do. Yes, it’s too bad that you couldn’t finish three cans of soda during dinner, but two will suffice just fine.
It’s all about perspective when it comes to these Rays, more urgent by the day. Seven weeks ago, taking two of three games in a series would be reason for Tampa Bay to crack open champagne. There was a time, not long ago, when silver linings in this stormy season were rare finds.
The Rays have played better, and with young right-hander Allen Webster taking the mound for Boston in place of the traded Jake Peavy, a sweep should have been expected to extend the good feelings to 10 consecutive games.
The chances were there for another victory, and by many measures, this afternoon was one of missed opportunity. The Rays answered David Ortiz’s three-run home run in the top of the third inning with two runs in the bottom half of the frame. But they went just 1 for 7 with runners in scoring position, and they left seven men on base.
"Don’t forget that the goal was to win the series, and we won the series once again," said Maddon, highlighting the fact that the Rays have won seven of their last eight series. "Really hard-fought game. They pitched well. Their starter struggled a bit, but their bullpen is really good, and they got us. We had opportunities, and we didn’t take advantage of a couple opportunities."
The opportunity for a sprint toward the postseason remains, because face it, the competition ahead is no bunch of world beaters.
Tampa Bay trails the Toronto Blue Jays by 4 1/2 games for the American League’s second wild-card spot, but the rotation north of the border doesn’t scare. The New York Yankees are flawed. The Seattle Mariners have faded. And who knows what will become of the chronically inconsistent Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians?
This Rays’ recent run was built on timely hitting to complement solid pitching and defense. The formula must continue against the Brewers, the National League Central leaders, and the Angels, who have visions of winning a division title in the tough AL West.
What the Rays can’t allow to happen is another slip that becomes a prolonged slide, a season-crushing stumble that dashes all the hope they labored to create in their second-longest winning streak in team history.
Avoiding a fall won’t be easy.
Milwaukee begins a three-game series Monday at 59-47, winners of five of seven games. Los Angeles, who has taken four of its last five, could arrive Friday with the majors’ best record.
Since the All-Star break, the Rays have done what they needed to do: Beat the dregs like the Red Sox and Minnesota Twins and pull off a couple surprises against contenders like the St. Louis Cardinals. Winning at least two games each against Milwaukee and Los Angeles should be the goal.
"Oh, we’re definitely riding that fine line right now," Maddon said. "Isn’t it wonderful? It definitely keeps you awake.
"On a daily basis, man, it’s Octember already. You can’t wait until September. We’re going with a new month. It’s called Octember. And you have to play the rest of this season like there’s no mulligans, every game counts. We did fine. We didn’t get the hit tonight. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Nine out of 10 ain’t bad. Winning a series is great. Keep it moving."
There’s no time like the present to make sure that direction remains forward and not back, a season on the brink resting in the balance.