Charging Rays make late run at wild-card berth

It’s already October for the Tampa Bay Rays, who have switched

into playoff mode in a late push to overtake the sagging Boston Red

Sox for the AL wild-card spot.

After losing four of five, Tampa Bay trailed the Red Sox by nine

games on Sept. 2. The Rays have since gone 8-1 and entered play

Tuesday within three games of a Boston club staggering toward the

finish.

The key was a three-game sweep of the Red Sox over the weekend,

capped by a 9-1 rout on Sunday.

”Everyone has stepped up and contributed to this run,” Rays

designated hitter Johnny Damon said. ”Now we have to keep it

going.”

Tampa Bay kept the momentum going Monday night by beating the

last-place Baltimore Orioles 5-2. The atmosphere at a near-empty

Camden Yards was anything but electric, but the Rays treated the

game as if it was the World Series.

”We already started the playoffs,” Tampa Bay manager Joe

Maddon said. ”The playoffs started Sept. 9. We’re going for the

two-month gig. We’re going for the World Cup. There’s no letting

up. Every game from our perspective has a playoff atmosphere

attached to it. That’s the way it should be, and that’s the way we

have to approach it.”

There’s no need to preach that philosophy to the players, who

are well aware of the situation.

”Hopefully we can be in the playoffs for a month-and-a-half,”

Damon said. ”These games (against the Orioles) are just as

important as the ones we just played and the ones we’re going to be

playing.”

The Rays close out the three-game series Wednesday night before

heading to Fenway Park for four games against the Red Sox, who had

a five-game losing streak through Monday. Then come four games at

Yankee Stadium, followed by the final homestand: three games versus

Toronto and three against New York.

”We’re playing teams we need to catch,” Damon said. ”That’s

the only reason that we do have a chance – that we have to go

head-to-head with Boston and New York.”

The Rays aren’t just a ragtag outfit trying to keep pace with

the big boys. Tampa Bay went to the World Series in 2008 and won

the AL East last season, so these guys know how to cope with

must-win situations.

And this, to be sure, is a must-win situation.

”We still have some big games left in this season and we know

we can make a run. We have that confidence,” center fielder B.J.

Upton said. ”A lot of us have been in pressure games in September

and in the postseason, and that experience helps us.”

That’s why Maddon believes the Rays will be able to take care of

business in Baltimore before turning their attention toward those

four pivotal games in Boston.

”I really want to believe our guys have that (winning)

attitude,” he said. ”I believe we are going to come out every

game with that attitude.”

The Red Sox have a payroll that dwarfs that of the Rays, and

their fans pack the house every game. Damon spent four years in

Boston, so he knows how important it is for the Red Sox to be

successful.

Not that he cares.

”Hopefully, they’re feeling us,” he said. ”They’ve got some

great players that have had great careers and postseason careers

also. For us, the only thing we’re thinking about is what we’re

doing. We’re in the situation that we need to be good. If we’re

good enough to get through this, we’ll go to the playoffs. If not,

then we definitely made it interesting.”

No one predicted the Rays would even do that, given that they’ve

been locked in third place since May 24.

”We got counted out so many times this year – as recently as

several days ago,” Damon said. ”Now we’re making it exciting, but

we also know that we can’t let off the gas pedal. We need to keep

pushing and getting better, and hopefully it rewards us at the very

end.”