ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — There is an urgency now for the Tampa Bay Rays, with only 24 games remaining and they trail the Minnesota Twins by four games for the second American League wild card.
Tampa Bay begins a three-game series against the Twins on Monday at Tropicana Field.
“I don’t want to put pressure on anybody, but this is probably one of the biggest series of the year,” Rays outfielder Steven Souza said Sunday after Tampa Bay’s second consecutive loss to the White Sox in Chicago, 6-2. “We can do a lot in this (Minnesota) series. It’s a really good team that we’re playing. We seem to step up whenever we play really good teams.”
The Rays (68-70) are still close enough to matter in the wild-card chase, though there are five teams in between them and the Twins (71-65) in a logjam that has kept many ordinary clubs in postseason contention.
Tampa Bay will send right-hander Alex Cobb (9-9, 3.72 ERA) to the mound on Monday. Cobb is 0-3 in his past four starts with some hard luck in there. In his past three starts, he has a 2.20 ERA with two losses and a no-decision to show for it.
Cobb pitched at Minnesota on May 28 and fared well, striking out six in five innings and allowing a single run. In two career starts against the Twins, he has a 1-0 mark and a 2.53 ERA.
Minnesota, which just lost two of three games to the visiting Kansas City Royals, is trying to distance itself from the wild-card pack. The Sunday defeat came down to a single swing — a two-strike check swing that was not called a strike in the seventh inning. Twins manager Paul Molitor was ejected arguing the call, which extended an at-bat that helped Kansas City pull out a 5-4 win.
“I thought he went too far. It’s pretty simple,” Molitor said after the game following his second ejection of the season. “We just are not always going to agree with everything (the umpires) do.”
Minnesota’s Monday starter is 23-year-old Jose Berrios, who is coming off a gem against the White Sox. He struck out 11 in seven scoreless innings of four-hit baseball en route to an 11-1 win Wednesday.
Berrios (12-6, 3.80 ERA) has faced the Rays only once. In August 2016, he took the loss while allowing four earned runs on five hits, including a home run by Rays third baseman Evan Longoria.
The road doesn’t get easier for the Rays, whose next nine games after this series consist of six against the AL East-leading Boston Red Sox and three against the second-place New York Yankees. A three-game sweep at Tampa Bay would pull them much closer to what they are still hoping for.
“We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do from here on out,” Souza said. “The schedule doesn’t get easier. We’ve got to win. These guys are ahead of us, and we’ve got to do some special things. Not just win here or there. We have to win a lot.”