Rays slip, but race far from over

The Rays had to win Thursday. B.J. Upton said so. Matt Joyce said so. The standings said so. Another loss to Baltimore and they would drop four games back in the American League East with 19 to play — perilous territory, even for a team that seems to invent a new bank-shot to the postseason every year.

Well … they lost. Sorry. The Rays escaped a bases-loaded, no-out calamity in the 13th inning — the five-man infield never fails — before falling 3-2 in the 14th, as the Orioles completed a three-game sweep. (From Baltimore’s perspective, Thursday at 5:52 p.m. ET will be remembered as the time when every phone with a 410 or 443 area code texted, ‘MANNY MACHADOOOOO!!!!!’). If it was any consolation to the Rays, those 5 hours and 14 minutes constituted the best baseball game of 2012 — so far.

And that’s the thing about the Rays: It was some consolation to them. This loss, as devastating as it may have seemed, won’t break them. Even as they sit four games back in the division and wild-card races, they aren’t resigned to missing the playoffs for only a second time since their 2008 pennant. Even as they showered and dressed in a quiet clubhouse, they seemed ready to open a series against the Yankees on Friday night — and ready to perpetuate havoc in an AL East race that is miles from ending.

“I love it,” said Joe Maddon, the Rays’ optimist-philosopher-manager. “That’s the point, man. There’s nothing to get upset about. You don’t start throwing things. Your guys just played 14 — what, was it 14? — hard innings. They were in every moment of the game. We just have been challenged in scoring runs.”

That much is apparent. The Rays scored only six runs during the three games — even with five innings of bonus hacks Thursday afternoon. They went a combined 3-for-21 with runners in scoring position — a .143 batting average. The Rays are never going to mash like the Texas Rangers, at least not in the foreseeable future. But they used to win because their infrequent hits came at the right times. That isn’t happening as often anymore.

One reason: Evan Longoria isn’t completely healthy after a season of hamstring injuries, as Maddon acknowledged again Thursday. The Rays lineup stagnates when he fails to drive in runs. At the moment, Longoria has gone five games — and 20 at-bats — without an RBI.

Another problem: Luke Scott and Carlos Pena were signed to be lineup mainstays, and neither is playing well enough to merit daily at-bats at first base, designated hitter or anywhere else.

And though we should be careful not to read too much into this, the Rays’ vaunted rotation — in this case, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb and Jeremy Hellickson — failed to record an out during the sixth inning of any game in this series. The Rays will need deeper (and better) starts this weekend against a Yankees lineup that is more formidable than what they saw in Baltimore.

But as the Boston Red Sox would tell you, the Rays won’t concede the AL East race because of their overall pitching strength and Maddon’s ongoing practicum in meta-baseball. He used 26 players Thursday. Twenty-six. According to STATS LLC, he hadn’t done that since last year’s Game 162 epic. Chris Archer, who pitched masterfully for 3 2/3 innings before taking the loss, entered the game as a pinch hitter when second baseman Ryan Roberts fouled a ball off his ankle in the 11th. It had been more than 12 years since an AL pitcher pinch hit in a non-interleague game.

And, of course, there was the five-man infield. Archer allowed the first three hitters of the 13th inning to reach base on a walk, his throwing error on a sacrifice bunt, and Mark Reynolds’ single. At that moment, it seemed inconceivable the Rays would survive another inning. But that’s when Maddon rolled out his plan: infielder Reid Brignac emerged from the dugout to replace outfielder Sam Fuld, and five Rays fanned across the dirt. There was such commotion on the field that I expected to hear a substitution buzzer at the scorer’s table.

But Maddon knew what he was doing. Robert Andino grounded to a perfectly placed Elliot Johnson for the first out. Then Archer fell behind pinch-hitter Matt Wieters 3-0. If any of his next pitches missed the zone, the game would end. Pressure? Nope.

“I’ll be honest with you,” Archer said. “The atmosphere of the team, the aura of the team, helped me be confident and have no doubt about the outcome. The word ‘walk’ didn’t even cross my mind. I stuck with my game plan.

“Carlos Pena and I have had several conversations about finding stillness in a storm, or finding stillness in a pond. I looked over, and he had his arms out, like, ‘Find your stillness.’ ”

He found it, apparently. Wieters struck out. The Rays adjusted defensively once more — Ben Zobrist traded his infielder’s glove for an outfielder model — and Archer fanned Nate McLouth to end the inning.

I know: One inning later, the game was over. Machado was the walk-off hero, and the Orioles’ record in one-run games reached an improbable 27-7. Baltimore boarded the team charter for a grueling three-city trip — Oakland, Seattle, Boston — brimming with confidence, and rightfully so. The Orioles appear destined to make the playoffs.

But the Rays are a dangerous team — to the Orioles, to the Yankees, even to a wild-card contender such as the A’s. Particularly if you’re a Yankees fan — with David Price and CC Sabathia set for Friday in the Bronx — it’s unsettling to know that the Rays were further from the playoffs after the same number of games last season. And we know how that turned out.

“We’ve been in difficult moments in the past,” Maddon said. “You’ve got to give the Orioles credit for the way they’re playing right now. They’re not giving up, either. But there’s time left. They have a tough trip coming up. We’ve got plenty of games left. We play them three more times at the end of the year.

“This can be re-had, in a sense. I cannot be upset with my guys. My guys are great.”

They just can’t hit, that’s all.

But that’s never stopped them before.