Rays building momentum before final road trip
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Their suitcases and duffel bags were scattered throughout the clubhouse, the rush on to pack for a final road trip that could lift them to the playoffs again.
This was a jolt the Tampa Bay Rays had waited for during those sour August nights in Phoenix and Los Angeles, during those grueling September evenings in Oakland and Anaheim and Seattle that seemed to drag with each loss.
The Rays had searched for a turn from a lull that threatened their October visions, and after four consecutive victories at Tropicana Field over the Baltimore Orioles, a fellow American League wild-card contender, they have found it. The discovery has happened at precisely the right time.
It began with a six-hour, 54-minute thriller Friday night/Saturday morning, it was extended with right-hander Alex Cobb's mastery Saturday, it was solidified with the bullpen's stout effort Sunday, and it became a springboard Monday with three runs in the last three innings to erase a two-run hole.
What's ahead: Six games, starting Tuesday, with three each against the New York Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays.
Their postseason outlook: Favorable, with a one-game lead over the Cleveland Indians for the top AL wild-card spot and a two-game edge over the Texas Rangers.
"It's been building," Rays manager Joe Maddon said of his team's momentum after a 5-4 victory Monday. "I don't want to be misconstrued here -- it's always been there. But right now, it's really accelerating. When you get to these moments, and you get to playoff time, when your guys are into it, you can feel the difference. It's an intangible thing."
Not long ago, as recently as last Thursday after a six-run loss to the Rangers, there were questions (rightfully so) about the Rays' ability to keep their grip on a shrinking wild-card lead. They faced threats in Cleveland, Texas, Baltimore, New York and the Kansas City Royals -- all teams primed to pounce as the Rays limped to a finish.
Those concerns are over. Absolutely done. They are as gone as the ball that carried 362 feet to the right-field stands off James Loney's bat, which set off a game-closing home-plate celebration Monday and guaranteed a good-feelings flight to the Big Apple.
"I think it does a lot," Loney said of the latest victory, while tying his shoes near his stall before leaving. "It gives everyone a good, positive attitude, I think. I feel like the last regular-season games are going to be good for us."
How fast things change. How many saw this coming?
Baltimore arrived here Friday as a legitimate threat to snatch an AL wild-card spot. The Orioles won two of three games at Fenway Park and trailed the Rays and Rangers by two in the chase. Instead, they leave with their playoff hopes smoldering, and suddenly, the Rays are the ones streaking with the final sprint to come.
There is some luck involved in this game, and after Monday, it's hard not to see favorable spins going Tampa Bay's way. Ben Zobrist was terrific in left field, only his second start there all season. Wil Myers is likely out, instead of earning two RBI, if Alexi Casilla's head avoids Nick Markakis' right knee when trying to make a diving catch on a shallow fly ball in right-center field.
Loney was originally absent from the lineup because of fatigue, before he emerged to deliver the Rays' 13th walk-off victory of the season, tying the club record set in 2011.
All this, plus the events of Friday through Sunday, had to occur for the Rays to keep a foothold. They survived a two-series gauntlet against Texas and Baltimore with a 6-2 mark. Meanwhile, the Rangers enjoy a seven-game cakewalk against the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Angels to close.
The Indians, for their part, will feast on a pair of appetizers as well: the Chicago White Sox (two games) and Minnesota Twins (four).
"Every game is so important right now," Zobrist said. "We've got to focus on tomorrow, even though this win was big and important, and the series was big. But now we've got two more important series. We've just got to keep pushing forward and not rest on our laurels here and keep believing, knowing that good things are going to happen if we go out there and do what we can do."
Good things happened for them the past four days here. Momentum is real in this game. It's present in hitting and pitching and body language. The season is too long, too taxing, not to lose it at some point in a 162-game grind.
Quality teams, playoff teams, steal it back. The Rays have appeared to do so now. Their bullpen was especially strong this series, as shown again Monday, when six different arms allowed no runs and five hits after right-hander Chris Archer was chased following 4 1/3 innings. (The Rays improved to 2-7 when he fails to throw at least six innings.)
Not long ago, sloppy pitching, dull hitting and unfortunate quirks hurt the Rays. Not anymore. Those foggy days, at least for the time being, are over.
They look prepared for the tests ahead. They look ... wild.
"It's great to finally get those breaks," Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said. "We're getting them at the right time. A couple weeks back, when we were going through that skid, these are the games you wait for.
"We have six more games. Each and every one of them is as important as the next. We have to keep focusing on the next day."
That task looks a whole lot easier after the last four.
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at email@example.com.