Tampa Bay Rays at St. Louis Cardinals series primer

James Loney has been hot with the bat in the three games since the All-Star break, going 7 for 12.

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Well, the temperature in the Bay Area says otherwise, and Sundays remain silent without the NFL’s thunder, but this is September as far as the Tampa Bay Rays are concerned. Scoreboard watching has become en vogue.

There’s urgency. There’s also possibility.

Take Sunday for example. It was easy to become caught up in the Early Arrow Collapse by Seattle Mariners closer Fernando Rodney against the Los Angeles Angels (the Rays trail by just six games for the second AL wild card!) and in the Oakland Athletics’ thumping of the Baltimore Orioles to take two of three games against Tampa Bay’s AL East rival (the Rays trail by just 7 1/2 games in the division!).

The urgency worthy of late summer is invigorating, even if it tests the heart’s stamina. Admit it, this is fun. Still, three things must happen for the Rays to finish a comeback that will be long remembered here.

First, they must keep winning. It’s impossible to place a win-loss amount on the target to reach the playoffs for the fifth time in seven years, but Tampa Bay must continue its trend of playing the best post-All-Star break baseball among all teams since 2010. The margin for error remains small.

Second, the offense must keep scoring. It’s striking to see how much better the bats have become since they slumped through April, May and most of June. The three consecutive shutout losses from June 8-10 seem like a bad nightmare. The revival has happened not a second too soon.

Third, the help must arrive early and often. The Rays can roll through the season’s final months, but without help from Baltimore and Seattle and other would-be contenders, Tampa Bay’s hole will prove too deep to overcome. That’s the life the Rays have created for themselves.

Much must happen for hope to become reality.

Still, it’s hard not to feel a little better about the Rays’ chances. Worries that the All-Star break would stunt the much-needed life gained at the end of the season’s first half proved unfounded. Baseball Prospectus has raised Tampa Bay’s chances of making the postseason to 8.2 percent, which remains low, but it’s all about perspective. A month ago, there seemed to be little reason to care about the schedule to come after July.

Now, there’s an excuse to believe again. The improved play has come from all over: The offense, the starting pitching, the bullpen, the defense. The collective effort is the best sign of a stronger pulse.

The schedule says July, but the nervous sweat suggests September. The frantic push must continue for the Rays to keep dreaming.

Here’s a look at the upcoming Rays-Cardinals series …

James Loney (Rays): He hit .583 (7 for 12) with two RBI in the first three games after the All-Star break. He had at least two hits in each contest, and his best day came when he went 3 for 4 in a victory over the Minnesota Twins on July 18. He has hit .285 with five home runs and 46 RBI this season.

Jon Jay (Cardinals): He hit .500 (4 for 8) in the first three games after the All-Star break. He had two hits each in victories over the Los Angeles Dodgers on July 18 and July 19. He has hit .294 with one home run and 22 RBI this season.

Ben Zobrist (Rays): He hit .200 (2 for 10) with one strikeout in the first three games after the All-Star break. He was held hitless once in the span, in a victory over the Twins on July 20. He has hit .264 with seven home runs and 27 RBI this season.

Matt Carpenter (Cardinals): He went 0 for 10 with five strikeouts in the first three games after the All-Star break. He struck out at least once in all the games in the span and twice on July 18 and July 20. He has hit .275 with four home runs and 34 RBI this season.

0: Teams with a better record after the All-Star break than the Rays since 2010. Tampa Bay began the post-All-Star break schedule this year with a 6-2 victory over the Twins last Friday at Target Field.

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10: Consecutive quality starts for left-hander David Price, the latest earned when he allowed four hits and struck out nine in a 5-1 victory over the Twins last Saturday at Target Field. He’s 10-7 with a 3.06 ERA and 173 strikeouts in 21 starts this season.

23-11: Rays’ record since they fell to 24-42 after play June 10. They begin play Tuesday eight games back of the Orioles in the American League East and 6 1/2 games behind the Mariners for the second AL wild-card spot. Their latest victory came in a 5-3 win over the Twins on Sunday at Target Field.

"We pretty much picked up where we did leave it off at the All-Star break. We were crispy, man. That felt good." — Manager Joe Maddon, after the Rays’ victory Friday. They have continued their momentum gained before the All-Star break.

"I’ve said that a month-and-a-half ago, six, seven starts ago. I’ve never been the pitcher that I am right now. It’s awesome. It’s cool." — Price, after his start in the Rays’ victory Saturday. He has won five consecutive starts and six of his last seven appearances.

"We’re just trying to concentrate on the moment and not thinking that far ahead. And we’re not thinking about what we did yesterday." — First baseman James Loney, after the Rays’ victory Sunday. The five-game winning streak matches their longest of the season (also happened June 28-July 2).

July 25-27 — Red Sox at Rays

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