State of the Rays: Tampa Bay just misses sweep of Yanks
About a month left, and the Tampa Bay Rays want more.
The regular season ends Sept. 29, one game separated them from the Boston Red Sox for the American League East lead after Sunday and they want to avoid the win-or-go-home wild-card game like a jug of spoiled milk.
The Rays got the best of the New York Yankees over the weekend. It was important to take two of three games at Tropicana Field, in what was the last time the Bronx Bombers will visit Tampa Bay's friendly confines this season.
Still, there was a glass half-full, glass half-empty reaction Sunday. There was a sense of business accomplished, business left undone.
"Keep winning series," Rays reliever Jamey Wright said after the Yankees' 3-2 victory in 11 innings, "and we're going to be fine."
"You win the first two," Rays manager Joe Maddon said, "you always want to win the third."
This is a good problem to have, of course. The Rays could have swept their Empire State visitors, if not for Alfonso Soriano's double to left field in the 11th, his stealing of third base and Curtis Granderson's sacrifice fly to center field with one out.
Tampa Bay's broom was left in the closet, unable to be used for sweep No. 10 this season.
Still, the Rays played with house money Sunday. By late Saturday night, their mission was complete: Win the series, keep pace with the Boston Red Sox and cool the streaking Yankees while kicking them back in the wild-card chase.
This drama has only begun. Buckle in. After Sunday, New York had drifted to seven games behind Boston in the AL East and 3 ½ behind the Oakland Athletics for the final wild-card spot.
Even with the Yankees salvaging a game, the Rays proved they are the better, stronger, more complete team. Even with two victories that easily could have been three, the Rays proved they are more equipped for the twists to come.
"Two victories and a chance to sweep," Rays right-hander Alex Cobb said, "you want to step on their throat and finish them off."
The Yankees are alive, but they're gasping for air. It's hard to see a scenario where they maintain their current pace – 11-4 since Aug. 11 – to pass the Athletics, much less the Baltimore Orioles, Rays and Red Sox.
Their climb remains high. They are running short of steps.
Still, the Yankees' victory Sunday was notable in some ways. They avoided being swept by the Rays for the first time since April 6-8, 2012. They improved to 7-9 in the season series, with three games left between the teams at Yankee Stadium from Sept. 24-26.
By that point, of course, there could be much on the line: The Rays' hopes to clinch the AL East, the Yankees' hopes to reach the postseason, the Red Sox's hopes stave off their threat from the South. This is shaping up to be a wild final month, with legacies and opportunity at stake. Tampa Bay placed itself in a positive position by winning two of three over the pinstripes.
Tampa Bay's 10-game West Coast swing looms large Aug. 30-Sept. 8. So does the series against the Red Sox from Sept. 10-12 at Tropicana Field. Then there are the four games against the Orioles from Sept. 20-23 at Tropicana Field. Then there are six games on the road to close the regular season, three each against the Yankees and Toronto Blue Jays.
There is no time to look in the rearview mirror. But from the Rays' perspective, there is plenty to like.
"I'm really pleased with the way we're playing, the attitude, the fight – everything is fantastic," Maddon said Sunday.
There's time to do even more.
Evan Longoria's slump seems like distant history. He smacked a 384-foot solo home run to left field off Yankees right-hander Ivan Nova in the sixth inning of the Rays' loss Sunday, marking the third consecutive game in which he has hit a home run, matching his career's longest streak (seventh time, last was June 10-12 against the Red Sox).
Longoria, who has hit .276 with 28 home runs and 71 RBI after Sunday, has six home runs in his last 10 games and five in his last seven. This run is rare, even for his high standards: The only other times he had five home runs in seven games was Aug. 20-26, 2011 and April 8-12, 2009 (five in six games).
Desmond Jennings has been in a lull since being activated from the disabled list Aug. 19. He hit .095 (2 for 21) in six games from Aug. 19-25, including four hitless games from Aug. 21-25.
Overall, he has hit .250 with 11 home runs and 40 RBI this season. He did not play from Aug. 4-18 because of a fractured left middle finger, but his return has given the Rays a boost defensively because of his speed in the outfield. Before going on the DL, he had started 102 of the Rays' 110 games.
"It's very big for where we're at in the division and the fact we're chasing the Red Sox a little bit and also trying to create some distance, because we know the O's and the Yankees are very capable and very tough competitors."
-- Infielder Ben Zobrist, to reporters, after the Rays' 7-4 victory over the Orioles last Tuesday at Camden Yards. After Sunday, Tampa Bay led Baltimore by 4 ½ games and the Yankees by six in the American League East.
"We're not going to canonize the guy. We'll just let him keep pitching. He's doing a great job. He's a young man, and he's very focused. I want to keep him on this path. He looks good."
-- Maddon on right-hander Chris Archer, after the Rays' 7-2 victory over the Yankees last Friday at Tropicana Field. Archer improved to 3-0 with a 1.23 ERA in three starts against New York this season.
"It's a great way to be. It definitely keeps it interesting, keeps you engaged for nine innings. Great crowd. The crowds have been really fantastic this weekend. Really helped us out a lot."
-- Maddon on the late-inning dramatics and the Tropicana Field crowd during the Rays' loss Sunday. The game drew 34,078 fans, marking Tampa Bay's third sellout this season.
9: Times left-hander David Price and Yankees left-hander CC Sabathia have faced each other in the past five seasons. With Tampa Bay's 4-2 victory Saturday at Tropicana Field, Price improved to 6-1 against New York in such meetings and Sabathia fell to 1-6 (the Rays have won eight of the matchups).
7-6: Rays' record in extra-inning games this season. They won five consecutive extra-inning games before losing to the Yankees on Sunday.
5: Times the Rays have flown to play a one-game "series," the last being at Boston on July 29, when Tampa Bay won 2-1. Before facing the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on Monday, the Rays were 1-3 in such games.
This season, it has become customary at the Yankees' stops to award closer Mariano Rivera with a parting gift, and the Rays put their own spin on the sentiment Friday. The past weekend's series marked New York's final regular-season trip to Tropicana Field, and the Rays rolled out the red carpet for Mr. Sandman with … sand.
Kudos for the effort and creativity, though Maddon and others within the Rays said that while they respect Rivera, the closer's retirement at season's end will make life easier in the AL East for anyone not wearing pinstripes.
There were, however, a few goosebump moments before Rivera left St. Pete in a Yankees uniform for good. Flashbulbs popped when he warmed up in the Yankees' bullpen late Sunday afternoon. Admiration for him (plenty of cheers) and disdain for Alex Rodriguez (plenty of boos) created a curious clash at the ballpark all weekend. In the end, after all the noise, Rivera walked away with save No. 38 this season.
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