Rays find possible pivot point with past two victories

BY foxsports • September 21, 2013

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Saturday morning, they showed us KISS and Chewbacca. Saturday afternoon, a no-frills kick to the groin of the Baltimore Orioles' playoff hopes.

Manager Joe Maddon has preached the need to find an organic moment to lift his team from September's lull, something raw, something real. Have we witnessed a pivot point for these quirky Tampa Bay Rays? Have we observed a turn that will lead them to one of two hotly contested American League wild card spots?

"I want to believe we're going to be able to continue it," Maddon said after the Rays beat the Orioles 5-1 on Saturday at Tropicana Field, their second victory in about 14 hours.

"Then again, you always have to be careful when things are going well, because that's when you have a tendency to let down, and we can't do it."

We'll see in the coming days. The past four, for the most part, have included a stabilizing quality to them, signs of life after a brief flatline. The Rays should feel better about their postseason chances than they did before starting this key series against another AL wild-card contender hot on their heels.

Credit Chewbacca? A hat tip to KISS?

Hey, why not?

In this year of the DJ and magician, a python and penguins plus more, it seems fitting that the freaky sights of an 18-inning slugfest Friday night/Saturday morning could be a turning point. There were few signs of fatigue in the Rays' clubhouse Saturday morning, about eight hours after they put victory No. 84 to bed. Outfielder David DeJesus, Mr. Wee Hours himself, said he went to sleep at about 4:30 a.m. after his game-ending single and awoke about five hours later, refreshed for another turn in this late-season joy ride.

"Hopefully," he said, "this is one of the quickest games we'll win."

He wasn't far off. Right-hander Alex Cobb gave the Rays exactly what they needed after they burned through 11 pitchers in the series opener. He allowed one run and five hits in 8 1/3 innings against Orioles batters who looked like they would rather catch Z's than chase his stuff.

The result? Tampa Bay looks like it has peeled itself off the concrete. This looks like a team that has shaken the cobwebs after haymakers taken to the chin earlier this month on the West Coast.

The Rays have won seven of 10 games after winning only four of their previous 17. They won consecutive games for the first time since taking three straight against the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins from Sept. 12-14. They improved to 49-30 at home this season and 28-12 at Tropicana Field in September since 2011.

Granted, they walk a tightrope with a thin net below and, possibly, a long tumble into the offseason. The Cleveland Indians began Saturday a half-game behind the wild-card lead and play marshmallows the rest of the way.

The Texas Rangers remain close and were one strike from taking three of four games at Tropicana Field this week. The Kansas City Royals -- yes, the Kansas City Royals -- have life. The New York Yankees are on the fringe, but they host the Rays for three games next week.

"The momentum part of the game right now is unneeded," Cobb said. "We don't need this to get us up for the next game tomorrow. We're in a wild-card chase. We're trying to get into the playoffs. I don't think anybody in this clubhouse needs added motivation for that."

True, but the good times don't hurt. Can you imagine the Rays' brain scramble had they had lost that 18-inning epic and botched Saturday's encore?

Can you imagine the punch to the gut?

Look no further than Baltimore on Saturday. The O's were zombies. Cobb threw a no-hitter through 4 2/3 innings. After Desmond Jennings' three-run blast to left field in the fifth, they were done. They were set to snooze.

Not long ago, for an extended stretch, the Rays were sleep-walking too. There are no guarantees they won't revert to that form next week. But there was a familiar balance to their play Saturday: Effective offense complemented strong pitching. This was the kind of show that once made them push the Boston Red Sox for the AL East lead.

"I feel like if we would have lost that game (Friday), we probably wouldn't have come out (well)," said Jennings, who tied a career high with four RBI Saturday. "We probably would have been a little down, maybe less energy. You win that game, and you come out the next day and you feel like (it's) a nine-inning game. But on the other side, they feel like they actually played 18. So it's big."

Big enough to propel them to a wild-card berth?

Big enough to make October matter?

Big enough to add another twist to this crazy, quirky year?

We'll see. But early returns look good.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.

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