Rays hit Chicago for important 4-game set

BY foxsports • September 27, 2012

The Tampa Bay Rays made it out of Boston unscathed late Wednesday night — unless, of course, you count the team’s contingent of embarrassed rookies and first-year players who had to dance and cavort to the pop hit "Call Me Maybe" in ‘80s-style wigs, women’s bathing suits and pantyhose by the Green Monster.

The irreverent post-game scene was a stark contrast to the introduction of the all-time Boston Red Sox team hours earlier. And in somehow typical fashion — with a ballclub known for its celebratory clubhouse dance parties and themed road trips — it captured the wild and crazy mood of the Rays as they swept through their seventh straight victory to keep their postseason hopes alive.

Their 4-2 win over the deflated Red Sox, coupled with a 5-2 triumph Tuesday night at Fenway, sends the Rays into the Windy City for a four-game series against the Chicago White Sox beginning Thursday.

For manager Joe Maddon and his team, this is where their season and all the swirling playoff aspirations likely will be decided.

They face a struggling, now desperate White Sox squad that slipped out of first place Wednesday night in the AL Central, a game behind the surging Detroit Tigers. Because the second-place team in the Central will be too far back in the Wild Card race to quality, both the Tigers and White Sox are in must-win mode for the division title, their only ticket into the postseason.

That dynamic will not make life any easier for the Rays, who have been on a no-margin-for-error march the past week — and need to keep it going for another one.

Unfortunately, they received no help Wednesday night from the teams ahead of them on the playoff ladder.

The Yankees handily defeated Minnesota to maintain their grip on first place in the AL East at 90-65, a game-and-a-half ahead of the 89-67 Orioles, who throttled Toronto 12-2 after having lost two straight at home to the Jays.

More significantly, the two teams Tampa Bay needs to catch and pass in the Wild Card derby — the Oakland A’s and Los Angeles Angels — each won as well. The A’s, who hold the first Wild Card spot at 88-67, defeated host Texas for the second straight night to pull to within three games of the first-place Rangers in the AL West. And the Angels held off the last-place Seattle Mariners 4-3 at home, raising their record to 86-69 — staying two games behind the A’s and one ahead of the Rays.

At 85-70, Tampa Bay is in infinitely better shape than early last week, when they had lost four straight games and any realistic shot of the postseason seemed out of reach. But they still face a daunting challenge at three games out of Wild Card contention with seven games left on the schedule.

Those final three home games next week against the Orioles still loom potentially large. But, in truth, what transpires over the next four games will determine how much meaning that final homestand will have.

The situation rekindles uncannily their amazing dash to the postseason in 2011: starting September 9.5 games out of contention, still behind 2.5 games with five to play and then staging a comeback for the ages in Game 162 to beat the Yankees and earn a Wild Card bid.

Maddon has likened the task to “running the table” — referencing the classic 1961 movie The Hustler, starring Jackie Gleason as pool shark “Minnesota Fats” and Paul Newman in a high-stakes pool drama.

In Maddon’s eyes, it’s seven shots made, seven more to go.

“You still have to go with the Fat Man route, man,” he told reporters after the game in Boston. “. . . You’ve seen 'The Hustler,' Jackie Gleason, Paul Newman and the boys. Going with the Fat Man right now.”

The Rays might be able to survive one slip in Chicago, though it all really depends on what the A’s and Angels do ahead of them.

Oakland hosts the Mariners (72-83) for a weekend series and finishes next week with three at home against Texas. Tampa Bay needs the A’s to lose at least a few of those final contests. The Angels, meanwhile, host Seattle tonight, travel to Texas for three against the Rangers over the weekend and finish on the road with three in Seattle.

Under the circumstances, it’s impossible for the players not to get pulled into scoreboard-watching. But Maddon, a master of keeping the mood in the clubhouse light amid high-pressure moments, is preaching an age-old sports adage.

“The mantra is one game at a time,” he said. “. . .We went 1-0 on Tuesday, 1-0 on Wednesday and now we’ve got to go 1-0 on Thursday. What I like is there’s a real looseness about us. But I tell you, when the game begins, the focus is really good. They draw it in really nicely, and I like that. So I’m really eager to get to Chicago. It’s great that we won these two games — it’s very important that we did. . . I like the way we’re going about our business right now.”

The Rays got a major contribution Wednesday from a player who has struggled to make an impact this season, Carlos Pena. His towering, two-run homer to dead center in the fifth wiped out a 1-0 deficit and was followed by a homer from left fielder Ben Francisco. Pena also singled to set up an important insurance run in the seventh after Boston closed the gap.

“He’s been there before,” Maddon said. “He knows what it feels like. He understands that to a certain extent he’s underachieved this year offensively. He knows that. We’ve talked about it. All he wants to do is help us win. That’s what he’s told me — he doesn’t care what it is, whether it’s coming off the bench, starting or pinch-hitting, whatever. He’s definitely got a very clear mind right now on what he needs to do to help us, and he’s been doing it.”

Fernando Rodney has also been doing it — in record fashion. He earned his 45th save Wednesday night to equal the team record set in 2010 by Rafael Soriano, lowering his ERA to a jaw-dropping 0.63 in the process. He also tied the record of six saves in season against the Red Sox, having already tied the mark of seven saves in a single season against the Yankees.

His performance has elevated him into legitimate contention for the Cy Young Award as a reliever — competing against teammate David Price (19-5 and a league-leading 2.56 ERA for starters).

The Rays will need all their weapons in Chicago. The White Sox have lost seven of their past 10 and trail Detroit by a full game. That sets the stage for what should be a classic, late-September showdown between two teams playing for survival.

Tampa Bay turns to James Shields (15-9, 3.65), who has pitched sensationally since the trade deadline, Thursday against right-hander Jake Peavy (11-12, 3.40). Friday, it will be Jeremy  Hellickson (9-10, 3.20) facing lefty Gavin Floyd (10-11, 4.56.)

On Saturday’s network FOX telecast, rookie Matt Moore (10-11, 3.92) hopes to overcome some recent missteps, while outstanding southpaw Chris Sale (17-7, 2.86) gets the start for Chicago. The series wraps up Sunday with Price going against a pitcher yet to be named.

The Orioles will be waiting in the wings next week. But right now, everything is riding on four games in Chicago as the Rays continue their quest to replicate the magic of 2011.

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