Rays need winning to continue on road trip

BY foxsports • September 24, 2012

Their playoff dream is still a long shot by any measure. But for a team whose season was on life-support less than week ago, the Tampa Bay Rays have at least breathed new live into their chances as they head into a critical six-game road trip.

One week ago, they were six games out of the Wild Card race and their postseason aspirations just a fading blip.

Monday, fueled by a five-game winning streak, they are 3.5 games behind with nine games left to play.

That’s no easy road to traverse by any means, especially because the Los Angeles Angels remain a game ahead of them in the Wild Card hunt. But it’s not uncharted terrain, either. Last season, the Rays were 2.5 games out of contention with five games remaining and, as the baseball world will never forget, qualified with a wild win in Game 162.

They needed a three-game home sweep of the Yankees last year, coupled with a Boston loss on the final night, to secure the Wild Card spot.

Now, a similar scenario could unfold next week. The Rays may very well need a three-game sweep home sweep of the Baltimore Orioles, as well as some stumbles by the Angels and Oakland A’s to have a shot of reaching the postseason.

Of course, that final series at the Trop against the Birds — Monday through Wednesday nights — could be rendered moot depending on what transpires this week in Boston and Chicago: with two games against the Red Sox and four against the White Sox.

The Rays can catch their breath Monday after completing their must-sweep of the Toronto Blue Jays over the weekend, following two straight wins over the Boston Red Sox last week that resurrected their hopes.

It was a remarkable five-game span, featuring 43 runs scored in the first four games before Sunday’s comparatively tame 3-0 win over the Jays. The wins of 13-3 and 7-4 over Boston, along with consecutive routs of 12-1 and 11-5 over Toronto, added up to the most productive four-game stretch in franchise history.

In addition, they out-homered the opposition 10-1 during the full five-game streak. Their shutout Sunday — anchored by five strong innings from Jeremy Hellickson and Fernando Rodney’s 44th save — extended their club record to 15 this season (second only in the majors this season to the Angels).

What’s more, they’re playing loose and easy in the high-pressure situation, seemingly unfazed by the fact that precious little margin for error remains.

“We’re playing. We’re not feeling anything,” said B.J. Upton, who extended his career high in homers Sunday with his 26th, his eighth in the past 14 games. “We’re not worried about what other teams are doing. We’re just going out and winning and seeing what happens.

“They keep saying we’re ‘162 Strong,’ but that’s what it is. We’ll finish it out, and you never know. That little rut we had, we did it (and) they can do it, too. We just have to go out and win as many ballgames as we can. This road trip is pretty important, but we’re not going to put any pressure on ourselves. We’re going to have some fun with it and see what happens.”   

The countdown begins Tuesday night at Fenway Park in a battle of aces: left-hander David Price (18-5, 2.58) facing right-hander Clay Buchholz (11-6, 4.16).

Buchholz pitched seven shutout innings last Thursday against the Rays, limiting them to four hits. But the Rays overcame a 4-1 deficit in the ninth with a six-run outburst against Boston’s bullpen to ignite their current revival.

Price was solid, though not his best in the game. He scattered eight hits over seven innings, allowing three runs. He certainly gives the Rays an excellent shot, with his league-leading 2.58 ERA. He’s 7-4 lifetime against Boston with a 3.19 ERA, and Tampa Bay has won seven of his last 10 starts against Boston.

On Wednesday, Alex Cobb (9-9, 4.27) faces struggling lefty Jon Lester (9-13, 4.96). Cobb flirted with a no-hitter last Monday against the Red Sox, holding them scoreless and without a hit through five innings.

But he hit a batter with out in the sixth and then gave up a two-run homer to Jacoby Ellsbury, giving Boston a 2-1 lead that unraveled into a 5-2 loss (and was marred by a heated dugout argument between Cobb and catcher Jose Molina).

The overall mood has certainly improved considerably since then. If Price and Cobb can pitch well, and the offense maintains its hot hand of the past five games, then the Rays have a good chance at winning both games. They need them both, though Boston — 20 games out of first at 69-85 — will surely be motivated by the chance to play spoiler. They enjoyed a little satisfaction Sunday with a 2-1 win over the Orioles, after dropping decisions of 4-2 and 9-6 in 12 innings to Baltimore over the weekend.

One way or the other, the Rays probably need to win five of six — at the very least 4-2 — to set themselves up for their season-ending showdown with the O’s.

But since they no longer control their own destiny, their fate also all hinges on what the competition ahead of them does.

At least on paper, Baltimore has a potential cakewalk: hosting four games against the last-place, reeling Blue Jays — a double-header Monday, followed by night games Tuesday and Wednesday. After a day off Thursday, they host the troubled Red Sox for a weekend series, then head south to finish up with Tampa Bay. It’s not a stretch to imagine the O’s coming to town on a 6-1 or 7-0 run.

Oakland is another case altogether. The A’s go on the road for four games, Monday through Thursday, against AL West-leading Texas. The A’s trail the Rangers in the division race by four games, so there’s plenty at stake in this series.

You could easily envision Texas, buoyed by its loud home crowd, coming away with a split or possibly taking three of four. That’s precisely what the Rays need to happen, since they currently trail Oakland by 3.5 games. The A’s then host a weekend series against Seattle (last in the West at 72-81) and finish up with three home games against Texas.

Put it this way: The Rangers have been the Rays’ nemesis the past two postseasons. Now Tampa Bay finds itself in the unusual position of being major Texas fans. With seven games remaining against Oakland, the Rangers are the best shot Tampa Bay has of gaining sufficient ground to squeak into the second Wild Card berth.

In addition, the Rangers could do the Rays a big favor in knocking the Angels off the pace this week. Los Angeles begins the final stretch Tuesday with a three-game series against Seattle, but then they travels to Texas for a weekend set against the Rangers. The Angels then close out on the road against the Mariners, who would be out to end a miserable season on a high note.

The pieces are in place for another dramatic run by the Rays, with the possibility of a pivotal three-game showdown against the Birds at the Trop.

But they need to do their job this week in Beantown and Windy City, hope for a helping hand from the Lone Star State — and see how the standings look when the dust settles late Sunday afternoon.