Rays begin a telling week with a victory behind James Loney’s clutch hit

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — James Loney watched his soft line drive flutter toward the gap and hoped it would land. At first, when he poked right-hander Kyle Lohse’s 89-mph fastball toward right-center field, he felt good about his chances to deliver as the Tampa Bay Rays’ Mr. Reliable again. Still, centerfielder Carlos Gomez was closing fast, and Loney braced for the best.

Then, a bounce on the tender turf. Then a loud roar from the Tropicana Field crowd, then Ben Zobrist and Matt Joyce racing toward home plate to give the Rays a 2-1 lead over the Milwaukee Brewers in the bottom of the sixth inning, the decisive score.

Two outs? Bases loaded? Pressure on?

No problem.

In a telling week for the Rays, with the non-waiver trade deadline looming Thursday afternoon, with rumors about Zobrist and left-hander David Price swirling throughout the Twittersphere and in column inches from sea to shining sea, Loney delivered when he was needed most.

"He always does that type of thing," Rays right-hander Jake Odorizzi said. "It’s like, ‘Oh, he hit it again.’ "

Who knows how much Monday’s result matters for the Rays’ future? On a surface level, it kept Tampa Bay to within 4 1/2 games of the Toronto Blue Jays for the American League’s second wild-card spot. At first glace, it allowed Joe Maddon’s team to claim its 10th victory in 11 games and recover from a loss Sunday that snapped their season-best nine-game winning streak.

But the Rays straddle two worlds in these days made for conjecture: They live on the border between "buyer" and "seller" in the hours before 4 p.m. Thursday. With each victory before then, with each sign of life, perhaps the gray becomes a little more green.

Rays vs. Brewers

As in a green-light strategy. As in going forward and carrying on as is with Price and Zobrist and the rest of the team’s core preserved, toward a push for the AL’s second wild-card spot and possibly the AL East title.

Of course, only Andrew Friedman’s cell phone knows if a victory like the one Monday can ward off a possible blockbuster deal involving Price. Certainly, a Milwaukee sweep coupled with a string of Toronto victories over the Boston Red Sox in the coming days would have placed a pall on the recent rally. Perhaps in that case, Friedman’s decision would have been made easier.

Who knows?

That’s a fine way to describe the Rays’ season now. There’s so much mystery, a sensation that can be exciting as much as it is thrilling. Some thought they would be World Series contenders out of spring training, but soon after, those dreams appeared to fizzle like an Alka-Seltzer tablet in tap water. Then they tease with this 28-12 tear since June 11, the best sprint in the majors in that time.

Who knows?

"You have to beat the best to be the best," Maddon said. "Our guys have got a good vibe. We’ve got to be a little more offensive like we have been."

That doesn’t sound like a manager prepared to see a change in clubhouse chemistry come 4:01 p.m. Thursday. It’s hard not to wonder how the Rays will do in August and beyond if each part of their preseason vision remains intact. Sure, it’s hard to say "no" to a deal that, by any rational study, would be too good to refuse.

Still, it would be difficult to break up the current momentum. It would be hard to see a change in that vibe.

Standing by his word

"It’s not anything new to us," said Odorizzi, who was strong again in allowing just one run and three hits in seven innings. "We’re used to the back half of the year when things are getting close. We have to play good, and we’ve been able to do that. So it’s kind of a comfort zone for us more than anything.

"We’re behind and need to come back. And we’ve been in that spot before. And a lot of teams can’t say that they’re trying to hold on, where we’re doing our usual thing and trying to come from behind."

Loney did his part Monday. He extended his on-base streak to 17 games, and he has batted .313 in the span as part of his .283 average overall. He’s second on the team with 49 RBI, only behind Evan Longoria’s 53, and he improved to hitting .417 (5 for 12) with the bases loaded this season.

Odorizzi and the dominant bullpen duo of Brad Boxberger and Jake McGee, affectionately nicknamed "Jake and the Box" by Maddon, took care of the rest. An emerging formula worked wonders again.

"He’s a helluva hitter," Odorizzi said of Loney.

Deep in the Rays clubhouse, wearing a bright yellow shirt, that helluva hitter prepared to walk from his stall like the night was business as usual. The Rays’ winning ways, absent for so long, have become expected now.

Who knows if the surge will be enough to keep all the key faces around? Who knows what their clubhouse will look like come Friday’s series opener against the Los Angeles Angels?

But they began a telling week the right way, with a victory against the National League Central leaders. Loney did the loudest talking of all.

"I’ve always felt different guys step up at different times," he said, shortly before moving toward an exit. "So you always want that."

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.