State of the Rays: Final push for AL wild card spots begins

This will be fun.
A final sprint for the American League’s wild card spots will take place over the next two weeks. Do the Tampa Bay Rays have it in them to place aside their recent below-average play and reach the playoffs? Or will two of the many other contenders in sight — Texas Rangers, Cleveland Indians, Baltimore Orioles, New York Yankees or Kansas City Royals — pass them down the stretch?
Anything seems possible. The Rays’ 2013 story promises a few more twists, and it’s likely we won’t know their postseason fate until the season’s final week. There are few “easy” spots left in their schedule: Starting tonight, they begin a four-game series with the Rangers at Tropicana Field before the Orioles arrive for another four-game set. Then they close with a six-game road trip against the Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays.
The good news for Joe Maddon’s team: Over the weekend, we learned the Rays’ worst run could be behind them as they begin these final tests. They lost 13 of 17 games from Aug. 25-Sept. 11 before winning three consecutive over the Red Sox (one) and Minnesota Twins (two).
There remain some questions, though. The loss Sunday to the Twins, which occurred after the Rays allowed six runs in the seventh and eighth innings, must not be repeated if they have visions of fending off the contenders targeting them. The reason the Rays find themselves in a tight race at all is because they have allowed games to slip away much too often.
It happened early in the season. It happened in the middle of the summer. It has happened recently.
Strong teams, playoff teams, don’t make such mistakes a habit. No more giveaways can be allowed or the Rays will find themselves making offseason plans by Oct. 1.  
In the process of trying to tighten up their own play, however, the Rays might do some scoreboard gawking. They control their fate against the Orioles and Yankees. But the Indians, in particular, are an interesting group to track.
Since the All-Star break, Cleveland is second in the AL with a 3.17 ERA, behind the Kansas City Royals’ 3.01. In the same span, the Indians have allowed 192 runs, which ranks second-fewest in the AL behind the Royals and Detroit Tigers with 191.
In addition, the Indians’ schedule sets up favorably in the coming weeks. After a three-game series against the Royals that begins today, they host the Houston Astros (four games) and Chicago White Sox (two) before closing at the Twins (four).
Considering Cleveland’s light load, Tampa Bay must take advantage of a reeling Texas team. The Rangers are a dreadful 2-11 in September, which stands at the worst record in the AL West for the month and the majors’ second-worst overall (the White Sox are 2-13). Texas last won consecutive games when it claimed three straight over the Seattle Mariners from Aug. 26-28.
By comparison, the Rays’ September swoon appears minor. They are 6-8 for the month, which is the worst record by percentage points in the AL East. Tampa Bay will send to the mound right-handers Alex Cobb (Monday), Jeremy Hellickson (Tuesday) and Chris Archer (Wednesday), as well as left-hander Matt Moore (Thursday). Texas will counter with right-handers Matt Garza (Monday), Nick Tepesch (Tuesday) and Yu Darvish (Thursday), as well as left-hander Derek Holland (Wednesday).
I think the Rays are good enough to win at least two, perhaps three, against the sinking Rangers. Tampa Bay’s starting pitching has been spotty of late, but Texas has picked an awful time to go cold. As bad as the Rays’ struggles seemed in recent weeks, the Rangers’ problems go deeper.
Now is the time to show who belongs in October.
What’s Hot
Yunel Escobar went 7 for 18 with two RBI in six games from Sept. 10-15. The stretch included two multi-hit contests, including a 3 for 4 night with one RBI in a 3-0 victory over the Minnesota Twins last Friday.
Overall, Escobar has hit .265 with nine home runs and 55 RBI. His RBI total is the highest it has been since he finished with 76 as part of the Atlanta Braves in 2009. For September, he has hit .256 after coming off a season-high August when he hit .315 with 10 RBI.
What’s Not
Ben Zobrist went 2 for 20 in five games from Sept. 10-15. His lone hits during the stretch came in a loss to the Twins on Sept. 15, when he went 2 for 5.
Those hits ended a four-game slump for him. He has hit .235 with one home run and four RBI in September, which places him in a comparable position to the .275 average with three home runs and 12 RBI he produced in August. His monthly average has declined slightly with each flip of the calendar since hitting a season-high .314 in June.
Quotes of the week

“It just slipped out of our hands.”
— Cobb after the Rays’ 7-3 loss to the Red Sox last Wednesday at Tropicana Field. He pitched 5 2/3 innings and allowed three runs and seven hits before reliever Roberto Hernandez gave up a 411-foot grand slam to Mike Carp in the top of the 10th inning.  
“I’ve been talking about the inches, the battle of the inches … That’s what this game is all about. When you get to this point, when you get this kind of competition against these kind of teams, there are always these little moments that occur. It is about inches, whether it goes your way or not. Finally, we got a break tonight.”

— Manager Joe Maddon after the Rays’ 4-3 victory over the Red Sox last Thursday. The win was Tampa Bay’s seventh in 19 tries this season against Boston, and the 12 Red Sox victories are the most for Boston in the season series since winning 13 in 2007.
“You don’t want to get used to stuff like this, but you have to be smart enough to put it behind you.”

— Reliever Joel Peralta, to reporters, after he allowed four runs and three hits in the eighth inning of a 6-4 loss to the Minnesota Twins on Sunday at Target Field. He fell to 2-8 on the year.
Numbers game
11: Games left for the Rays, out of 14, against teams either tied or within three games of them for the AL’s second wild-card spot. They play the Rangers from Monday through Thursday, the Orioles from Friday through Sept. 23 and the Yankees from Sept. 24-26.  
3: Consecutive games won by the Rays, from Sept. 12-14, against the Red Sox and Twins. It was the first time Tampa Bay won more than two straight since winning three in a row from Aug. 18-20 against the Blue Jays and Orioles.  
12-4: Rays’ record at Target Field after going 2-1 against the Twins in the series from last Friday to Sunday. By comparison, they went 17-31 at the Metrodome, the Twins’ former home.
Tweet of the week

The worst appears to be past them. The Rays lost 13 of 17 games from Aug. 25-Sept. 11, but winning three consecutive from last Thursday through Saturday seems to have calmed their situation more so than before.
Can they rally for the final two weeks? That will determine how we remember these Rays. They are still looking for a spark that could lift them to the playoffs. Will they find it?
Watch closely. The days ahead will be fascinating.  
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at