In Toronto, the Rays seek to avoid a letdown

They could easily have become Texas Toast, watching their recent wild-card run and division-title hopes burn to a crisp with a prolonged losing streak.

Instead, the Tampa Bay Rays popped out just in time with a crucial 8-4 victory over the Rangers on Wednesday night — a win that snapped a four-game slide and allowed them to take a bite out of the first-place Yankees’ AL East lead.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of their triumph, given the tightness of the dual races the Rays are currently immersed in. At 71-59 now, they’re four games behind New York (75-55) for the division lead and a half-game behind Baltimore (71-58) for the second wild-card berth.

Simply imagine if they had been swept by Texas — sending them north of the border with a five-game losing streak to face the Toronto Blue Jays in a four-game series starting Thursday.

Or picture how dismal the situation would be if they had somehow blown the 6-0 lead they had jumped to after two frames at Rangers Ballpark, before watching Texas eat away at the advantage with four unanswered runs by the fifth.

That’s why manager Joe Maddon took no chances, yanking starter Alex Cobb after 4 2/3 innings — one out from qualifying for the potential win. Burke Badenhop recorded the final out of the inning, and the stellar Tampa Bay bullpen silenced the Rangers’ potent bats the rest of the way, with Jake McGee, Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta and Fernando Rodney allowing just one hit combined.

There was no way Maddon could risk letting his team give away a six-run early lead on the heels of two razor-thin, one-run losses to Texas, 6-5 and 1-0, the latter of which wasted a fine outing by James Shields on Tuesday night.

For the record, those two losses gave Tampa Bay its 10th loss in 11 one-run games dating back to July 21. But amazingly, it also marked the fourth time in August the Rays have dropped a 1-0 decision, making them the first major league team to lose four by that score in a single month since the 1969 Houston Astros, and the first AL team to do so since the 1955 Chicago White Sox.

Maddon’s early move to the pen paid off, possibly preventing a welcome show of offensive force from getting wasted as well. Rays hitters jumped all over 15-game winner Matt Harrison, eventually chasing him after 5 1/3 innings, and finished with a rare 16-hit outburst.

The show of firepower was led by Evan Longoria’s two homers — a two-run blast in the first and an insurance solo shot in the ninth. B.J. Upton also delivered a crushing blow with a three-run homer in the second, and Elliot Johnson’s solo rip in the sixth provided some breathing room after Texas had pulled to within 6-4.

“When you get a big lead, then give it up, that’s the one that really bothers you,” Maddon told reporters in Texas. “That’s the one you carry. That was definitely in my mind, to not permit the lead to go away. Because once they tied that game up, it would have been a feeding frenzy, regardless of who was pitching. So the point was to keep the lead at all costs, hopefully get a couple more runs and permit the bullpen to do their thing.”

With that mission accomplished, the Rays can turn their attention to Toronto with a much-improved state of mind and a better footing in the wild-card chase.

The Jays may be awful now, completely unraveling without the services of injured home run king Jose Bautista. But even though they reside in the AL East basement at 58-71, 16-1/2 games out of first, they have a history of playing the spoiler at this stage of the season.

That could be difficult, however, for a team that has lost eight of its past 10 games (in spite of knocking off the Yankees 8-5 on Wednesday afternoon in the Bronx). The Rays have defeated Toronto nine of 11 times this season, including five consecutive victories (with a three-game sweep at the Trop in early August). They also regain the services of tall Texan Jeff Niemann for the series, making his first appearance since suffering a broken leg off a line drive in Toronto on May 15.

Tampa Bay will play 25 of its remaining 31 games against AL East foes, and that could bode well considering its division track record this season: a 27-20 mark that’s the best among any East team.

Here’s how the pitching matchups line up against the Jays: Thursday is Matt Moore (10-7, 3.60) vs. right-hander Carlos Villanueva (6-4, 3.30); Friday at 7:07 p.m. ET, Jeremy Hellickson (8-9, 3.42) vs. righty Brandon Morrow (7-5, 3.06); Saturday at 1:07 p.m., Niemann (2-3, 3.38) vs. right-hander Henderson Alvarez (7-11, 4.97); and Sunday at 1:07 p.m., David Price (16-5, 2.53) vs. lefty Ricky Romero (8-11, 5.63).

It’s an ideal opportunity the Rays get to make up for their recent slide and gain ground in the crowded field of contenders. They trail Oakland for the first wild-card seed by 1-1/2 games and Baltimore by that half game for the second spot. And they’re 1-1/2 games ahead of Detroit, with the Angels closing to within three games after two straight wins.

That’s why they needed to escape Texas with a victory Wednesday, and why they have to make toast out of Toronto as the race continues to heat up.